One of the biggest issues with cancer is that it is frequently diagnosed far too late. The symptoms can often be quite generic, like tiredness and weight loss, so many people don’t find out they have the disease until it has really taken hold. Unfortunately, this is also when it is much harder to treat.
But scientists have made a breakthrough. They have identified a new kind of blood test that can determine the presence of 10 different cancers long before tumors even occur. While the test isn’t 100 percent accurate and still needs more work, the lead researcher has hailed it as “potentially the holy grail of cancer research.”
Dr Eric Klein told The Telegraph that the new test could help doctors “find cancers that are currently hard to cure and at an earlier stage when they are easier to cure.
“We hope this test could save many lives.”
It all sounds rather promising, so what does it actually involve?
The technique is known as a liquid biopsy. Essentially, it involves screening the blood for DNA molecules released by cancerous cells. At the moment, depending on the type, cancers are often identified through scans and biopsies. A number of different blood tests are also currently used to check out things like blood cell count, liver and kidney function, and the presence of substances produced by tumors.
What’s exciting about the new development is that it can screen people for signs of cancer years before they show symptoms of the disease. Therefore, if further research proves successful and the test starts to be used, it could allow doctors to screen patients for certain kinds of cancer, potentially saving many lives. According to The Telegraph, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) could start using the blood test within the next five years, but some state that figure is overly ambitious.
“Now, as the NHS marks its 70th anniversary, we stand on the cusp of a new era of personalized medicine that will dramatically transform care for cancer and for inherited and rare diseases,” Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, told The Guardian.
The research on the new test was presented recently at the American Society of Clinical Oncologists annual meeting in Chicago. The study involved 1,627 participants, 749 of whom were free from cancer and 878 who had just been diagnosed.
The liquid biopsy test correctly identified pancreatic, ovarian, liver, and gallbladder cancers at least 80 percent of the time. It wasn’t quite as good at diagnosing lymphoma and myeloma (which originates in the bone marrow) – spotting them 77 and 73 percent of the time respectively – but was still pretty good. It identified bowel cancer 66 percent of the time, lung cancer 59 percent of the time, and head and neck cancers 56 percent of the time. Despite being "several steps away" from real-world application, and tested on a fairly small group of people, the scientists say the findings are promising.
After further clinical development, the blood test could one day be used on everybody, and specifically targeted at those over the age of 40 who are at a higher risk of developing cancer. Nevertheless, there are over 100 types of cancer, and this new test only detects 10. Still, if this field of research grows, effective early tests could one day be applied to many kinds of cancer, in turn saving many lives.