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Clinical use of exhaled volatile organic compounds in pulmonary diseases: a systematic review

Kim DG van de Kant1*, Linda JTM van der Sande1, Quirijn Jöbsis1, Onno CP van Schayck2 and Edward Dompeling1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Pediatric Pulmonology, School for Public Health and Primary Care (CAPHRI), Maastricht University Medical Center (MUMC), P.O. Box 5800, 6202, AZ, Maastricht, the Netherlands

2 Department of General Practice, CAPHRI, MUMC, P.O. Box 5800, 6202, AZ, Maastricht, the Netherlands

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Respiratory Research 2012, 13:117  doi:10.1186/1465-9921-13-117

Published: 21 December 2012


There is an increasing interest in the potential of exhaled biomarkers, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), to improve accurate diagnoses and management decisions in pulmonary diseases. The objective of this manuscript is to systematically review the current knowledge on exhaled VOCs with respect to their potential clinical use in asthma, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis (CF), and respiratory tract infections. A systematic literature search was performed in PubMed, EMBASE, Cochrane database, and reference lists of retrieved studies. Controlled, clinical, English-language studies exploring the diagnostic and monitoring value of VOCs in asthma, COPD, CF, lung cancer and respiratory tract infections were included. Data on study design, setting, participant characteristics, VOCs techniques, and outcome measures were extracted. Seventy-three studies were included, counting in total 3,952 patients and 2,973 healthy controls. The collection and analysis of exhaled VOCs is non-invasive and could be easily applied in the broad range of patients, including subjects with severe disease and children. Various research groups demonstrated that VOCs profiles could accurately distinguish patients with a pulmonary disease from healthy controls. Pulmonary diseases seem to be characterized by a disease specific breath-print, as distinct profiles were found in patients with dissimilar diseases. The heterogeneity of studies challenged the inter-laboratory comparability. In conclusion, profiles of VOCs are potentially able to accurately diagnose various pulmonary diseases. Despite these promising findings, multiple challenges such as further standardization and validation of the diverse techniques need to be mastered before VOCs can be applied into clinical practice.

VOCs; Asthma; COPD; Lung cancer; Cystic fibrosis; Airway inflammation; Biomarkers