Thorax 64:744-748 doi:10.1136/thx.2008.099465
  • Lung cancer

Ion mobility spectrometry for the detection of volatile organic compounds in exhaled breath of patients with lung cancer: results of a pilot study

  1. M Westhoff1,
  2. P Litterst1,
  3. L Freitag1,
  4. W Urfer2,
  5. S Bader2,3,
  6. J-I Baumbach3
  1. 1
    Hemer Lung Hospital, Department of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine, Hemer, Germany
  2. 2
    Faculty of Statistics, Technical University, Dortmund, Germany
  3. 3
    ISAS – Institute for Analytical Sciences, Dortmund, Germany
  1. Correspondence to Dr M Westhoff, Lungenklinik Hemer, Theo-Funccius-Str 1, 58675 Hemer, Germany; michael.westhoff{at}
  • Received 27 March 2008
  • Accepted 20 November 2008
  • Published Online First 21 January 2009


Background: Analysis of exhaled breath, especially of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), is of increasing interest in the diagnosis of lung cancer. Compared with other methods of breath analysis, ion mobility spectrometry (IMS) offers a tenfold higher detection rate of VOCs. By coupling the ion mobility spectrometer with a multicapillary column as a pre-separation unit, IMS offers the advantage of an immediate twofold separation of VOCs with visualisation in a three-dimensional chromatogram. The total analysis time is about 500 s compared with gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) of about 1 h. It therefore seemed reasonable to test IMS in breath analysis.

Methods: In a pilot study, 32 patients with lung cancer were subjected to a breath analysis by IMS. Their IMS chromatograms were compared with those of 54 healthy controls. An IMS that was built for special clinical application was used to identify characteristic peaks of VOCs which might be relevant for the diagnosis of lung cancer in exhaled air of 10 ml volume.

Results: By a combination of 23 peak regions within the IMS chromatogram, patients with lung cancer, including a patient with carcinoma in situ, were classified and differentiated from healthy persons with an error rate of zero.

Conclusion: Breath analysis by IMS can detect a discriminating combination of VOCs in patients with lung cancer. By pattern recognition without the need for chemical analysis of the underlying VOCs, IMS has the potential to facilitate lung cancer diagnosis.


  • See Editorial, p 737

  • Funding The study was financially supported by the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung and the Ministerium für Innovation, Wissenschaft, Forschung und Technologie des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Ethics approval The study was approved by the Institutional Review Board and all participants gave their written informed consent for participation in the study.