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A Shanghai hospital is collaborating with a biotechnology company from the United Kingdom to start clinical trials of a method to screen for cancer through breathing tests - which it said has great potential to become an easy, noninvasive and less expensive way for early diagnosis of various cancers.

It was the first time that such a technology had come to the Chinese mainland, said Renji Hospital affiliated with Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the Chinese partner in the Sino-UK project, during a signing ceremony with Cambridge-based Owlstone Medical on Monday in Shanghai.

The British company will provide its patented devices and training, and the Shanghai hospital will provide lab space and a research team.

Subjects of the test need only wear a breathalyzer and breathe for several minutes as the device checks for volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. The test samples the whole body, doctors said.

VOCs are produced as the end product of metabolic processes within the human body. Underlying changes in metabolic activity can produce VOC patterns characteristic of specific diseases, they said.

Owlstone said on its website that the device uses a chemical sensor on a tiny silicon chip.

Wang Liwei, director of the lab, said the China-UK team is working on a detailed proposal for the trial, which includes setting standards for the telltale VOCs and the age range of the subjects. The trials are expected to begin in three months.

"Such trials have been carried out in the UK on 4,000 individuals and achieved an accuracy rate that qualified for clinical application. So it may win approval for use in the UK soon," Wang said.

He said the hospital will first carry out trials looking for lung cancer, the most common form of cancer and the leading cause of cancer deaths in China. The target for the trials is 70 percent accuracy.

With a total of 787,000 newly diagnosed patients every year, lung cancer tops China"s malignant tumor incidence and accounts for nearly one-fourth of cancer deaths in the country, according to the National Cancer Center.

"Such a fast and noninvasive means of screening will reduce the cost of medical treatment for individuals and society as a whole and improve the overall early diagnosis and survival rate of cancer patients," Wang said.

Chris Hodkinson, vice-president of business development at Owlstone Medical, said the cooperation will improve the technology and eventually benefit more cancer patients at home and abroad.

Experts said VOCs originating from all parts of the body are captured in a person"s breath, making the technology applicable to a wide range of cancers.

"We have plans to expand the screening technology to other cancers, including gastric cancer and intestinal cancer, for which the current detection means - gastroscopy and enteroscopy - are kind of painful, and to pancreatic cancer, which is hard to discover," Wang said.