Fu Receives NIH Grant to Help Fight Lung Cancer

You wouldn’t immediately think of chemical engineering as something you would link with fighting lung cancer, but the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is recognizing the efforts of engineer Dr. Xiao-An (Sean) Fu to do just that.

Dr. Fu, a Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Louisville Speed School, was recently awarded an additional $180,000 grant to continue his extensive research on using breath analysis as a screening and diagnostic tool for early lung cancer detection. The original 2018 grant is projected to be worth $600,000 over three years.

Lung cancer has the highest mortality of any cancer. On the local level, Kentucky has the worst lung cancer rates in the nation with 96.8 new lung cancer diagnoses per 100,000 people. The state’s annual numbers go way above and beyond what exists anywhere else in America.

As with all cancers, but particularly with lung cancer, the quicker it is diagnosed the better chance of therapy that patient has. “In fact, National Cancer institute statistical data indicate that for lung cancer patients diagnosed at stage one, the 5-year relative survival rate is 57.4 percent,” said Dr. Fu. “But at stage four, once the cancer has spread or metastasized, the patient has less than a 5.2 percent chance of survival,” he said.

Dr. Fu’s project is developing a micro-reactor chip that would measure and identify certain volatile organic compounds or metabolites in exhaled breath that will differentiate malignant lung tumors from benign pulmonary nodules. “The analysis of exhaled breath samples has great potential to become a powerful non-invasive screening and diagnostic tool for early lung cancer detection,” said Dr. Fu.

For a few years now, Dr. Fu has been collaborating with Dr. Victor Van Berkel, a thoracic surgeon at University of Louisville Brown Cancer Center on the project. Dr. Van Berkel explained how Dr. Fu’s work could transform lung cancer diagnostics – and survival rates.

“The big problem is that in lung cancer, the vast majority of patients have no symptoms at all until their cancer spreads. If it spreads to their brain or bones, our chances of being able to cure them are quite poor. The challenge with traditional CT scans of patients at risk of lung cancer is that we often find spots on the lung, but most of them are not cancer. But the only way to find out for sure is to have a needle biopsy or operation, an invasive and costly procedure.”

What Dr. Fu’s research will one day offer to patients is the simplicity of visiting a primary care physician, blowing into a plastic bag and sending off the test, an infinitely cheaper and more convenient way for patients. Most importantly, cancer can be diagnosed earlier.

Dr. Fu has co-founded a start-up company, Breath Diagnostics, Inc. that is ultimately willing to commercialize this technology when it comes to fruition. But first there will be approximately two years of clinical trials with a large number of patients, and the FDA approval process, which takes time. Dr. Fu said optimistically, the breath analysis methodology could be brought to market in five years.

But that does not deter Dr. Fu, for whom this research has been a labor of love. “If you look at the National Cancer Institute statistics, just in the United States in one year, about 142,670 people died from lung cancer,” he said. “I feel I have a great opportunity to make a difference using chemical engineering technology and do some high impact research,” he said. “One day, it will save lives.”