Diagnosing lung cancer could soon be as easy as spotting bad breath. Researchers at the University of Huddersfield in England have recently launched an extensive three-year project aimed at developing a breathalyzer device capable of detecting pulmonary tumor growth. If successful, the effort stands to dramatically improve current screening protocols and prognoses for the world’s deadliest cancer.

Despite years of research and millions of dollars in funding, lung cancer mortality remains high, with more than 150,000 Americans succumbing to the disease annually. One of the reasons behind the sobering death toll is the typical delay in diagnosis. Like cancer of the colon, rectum, and pancreas, lung cancer generally doesn’t manifest symptomatically until the tumor growth has advanced and spread to neighboring tissue through metastasis. At this point, surgical and medical intervention becomes exceedingly difficult.

The new research project aims to resolve this by identifying so-called biomarkers of lung cancer — slight chemical fluctuations and signatures indicative of cancerous tissue in the lungs. The team believes that such biomarkers may be detected with a sensitive breath testing device. “The intention is that we will catch patients before they start getting the symptoms. Once lung cancer patients start experiencing symptoms it is often very advanced and has a very low cure rate,” lead researcher Rachel Airley said in a press release. “We are looking to be able to distinguish between patients with early lung cancer and patients who have maybe got bronchitis, emphysema or non-malignant smoking related disease ... or who have maybe just got a cough.”

Airley and her colleagues are not the only scientists searching for lung cancer biomarkers. In a study published earlier this year, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic describe their discovery of several potential candidates. Both teams believe that a breath test represents the future of lung cancer screening and diagnosis.

Aside from facilitating the job of oncologists, the innovation could also make reliable diagnostic tools available to the public. With a lung cancer breathalyzer, screening protocols will begin at your local pharmacy, Airley said. “There are 12,000 community pharmacies in Britain and there is a big move for them to get involved in primary diagnostics, because people visit their pharmacies not just when they are ill but when they are well. A pharmacy is a lot less scary than a doctor’s surgery,” she explained. “The idea is to pick up illnesses almost before they happen. Lung cancer is ideal for this because it is often not diagnosed until there are really serious symptoms.”