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There are 94 million Americans at risk for lung cancer in the U.S., but only 1.6 million are scanned annually, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics cited by a team of Harvard and MIT students. The team formed a startup called Astraeus Technology, and they recently won the top prize in an MIT entrepreneurship contest for their inexpensive, fast, and accurate smartphone sensor called the L Card.

“L Card” stands for Chemically Actuated Resonate Device. It’s a near-field communication tag modified to change frequency depending on the presence of volatile organic compounds found only in the breath of lung cancer patients. After someone blows on the card, a smartphone reads the card frequency. If the frequency signals lung cancer, the smartphone app indicator turns red. Otherwise, the indicator is green.

According to the winning team, CT scans are the most common form of lung cancer detection, but cost about $800 each, require a reading by a technician and a physician, and deliver a high percentage of false positives that typically lead to another test. The L Card, on the other hand, can be mass-produced for about $1 each. According to the team, the L Card results are 10 times more accurate than CT scans for detecting lung cancer. Because the L Card is fast, accurate, and inexpensive, Astraeus believes it could be part of routine screenings and checkups; it could quickly indicate to health care professionals that more investigation is needed. The next step with the L Card is product development and clinical trials in research hospitals.

This is yet another way that biomarkers in a person’s breath can provide useful health information. It’s intriguing to consider what other diagnoses could be made with similar technology. Some day perhaps a big part of our annual checkups will be breathing onto a series of small cards.