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A Machine That Sniffs Out Cancer

Metabolomx sniffs out diseases normally detected by biopsy
Metabolomx's machine requires patients to breathe in and out of a tube for four minutes
Metabolomx's machine requires patients to breathe in and out of a tube for four minutesPhotograph by Cody Pickens for Bloomberg Businessweek

A few years ago researchers in California received widespread attention for showing that dogs can smell cancer on a human’s breath. With 99 percent accuracy the canines could detect if a person had lung or breast cancer, beating the best figures from standard laboratory tests. Subsequent studies confirmed the results and provided further evidence that dogs really are man’s best friend.

The problem with cancer-detecting dogs is that, well, they’re dogs. Hospitals haven’t embraced the idea of a diagnostic tool that poops, barks, and requires feeding. With such concerns in mind, technology startups have hustled to build digital devices that can mimic the dogs’ olfactory sense and reduce the need for biopsies and CAT scans. Metabolomx, a 12-person outfit in Mountain View, Calif., now appears on the fast track—insofar as such a thing exists in the heavily regulated medical field—to bringing a cancer-sniffing device to market.