It seems like magic. A new portable breath test developed by the University of Colorado not only detects varying stages of lung cancer but discerns between chronic pulmonary obstructive disease (COPD), too.

Developer Fred R. Hirsch, a professor of oncology, says the device “could totally revolutionize lung cancer screening and diagnosis. The perspective here is the development of a non-traumatic, easy, cheap approach to early detection and differentiation of lung cancer,” he said in a press statement.

To receive an instant diagnosis, the user blows into the device to inflate a balloon attached to a highly sensitive gold nanoparticle sensor. Particles in the sensor then trap and help to analyze the volatile organic compounds exhaled from the lungs, which carry the telltale signatures of disease.

“The metabolism of lung cancer patients is different than the metabolism of healthy people," Hirsch explains.

The need for the new device is clear to cancer specialists across the country. Lung cancer guidelines from the U.S. Preventative Task Force shows that computed tomography may lower deaths by 20 percent. But the more sensitive screening also brings a high rate of false positives, mistaking non-cancerous lung nodules for disease.

"You detect many, many nodules in those screenings and unfortunately, around 90 percent of them are benign,” Hirsch said. “So you need to find out how to better distinguish malignant from benign modules. The goal of this tool is to use breath biomarkers to distinguish malignant from benign screen-detected nodules.

Soon to be available at the doctor’s office and drugstore, the new handheld device may soon offer not only diagnostics but advice on treatment.

"In addition to using levels of volatile organic compounds to diagnose lung cancer, we could eventually measure the change in patients' levels of [volatile organic compounds] across time with the intent of... monitoring how well a patient responds to specific treatments,” Hirsch said.

Lung cancer remains the most prevalent form of cancer for American men and women, even as smoking rates continue to decline. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than 201,000 U.S. residents received lung cancer diagnoses in 2010, while 158,000 died.

The handheld lung cancer detector is a collaboration between the University of Colorado Cancer Center and the Institution Technion University in Haifa, Israel.

Source: Hirsch F, et al. At The Annual Meeting Of The American Society For Clinical Oncology. 2014.