Only about one in five patients who undergo surgery or a biopsy for a small lung mass found during a computerized tomography (CT) scan actually have cancer, and experts say there is a great need for better technology.
Lung cancer is the world's most common and deadliest cancer, killing about 1.3 million people each year according to the World Health Organization. Smoking is the primary cause.
The latest test, described in the journal Science Translational Medicine, was applied to the blood of 143 patients at three different sites in North America.
All had small masses called nodules in their lungs. Some had stage 1 cancers; others had benign lesions.
The test looked for a group of 13 proteins in the plasma and was able to accurately determine when the nodules were benign 90 percent of the time.
Researchers on the project came from the New York University Langone Medical Center and School of Medicine, the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
"We believe this technology, when applied to a commercial protein expression test, will be of tremendous interest to pulmonologists," said Albert Luderer, chief executive officer of Integrated Diagnostics (Indi), the biotech company that has patented the technology.
A company spokesman told AFP a commercial version of the test should be available later this year in the United States. Its price has not been determined, he said.
Lung nodules are typically 0.2 to 1 inch in size (five-25 millimeters) and larger ones are more likely to be cancerous than small ones.
The current standard of care is to compare chest X-rays or CT scans over time, and to perform a biopsy if a doctor suspects there may be cancer.