The word “unprecedented” has been thrown around a lot during the COVID-19 pandemic as a fitting word to describe the way it has disrupted our lives, health, and health care systems. Cancer has been one of the hardest-hit non-COVID-related illnesses struck down by the disease, as lockdowns, staff sickness, and a reduction in diagnoses have left many in the dark about their illness. Now, a new blood test could help make up for some of this fallout, simultaneously revealing if someone has cancer and if it has spread.
The groundbreaking approach was published in Clinical Cancer Research and comes from the University of Oxford, UK. It marks the first time that a blood-based test has been able to detect metastasis – the spread of cancer cells – which could make all the difference in giving physicians the information they need to establish which patients require treatment the most urgently.
Nonspecific symptoms are part of the reason many cancers are so deadly as they can slip under the radar until it has reached an advanced stage and spread to other parts of the body. Metastasis has a big influence on patient outcomes, so identifying cancers that have already spread quickly can help physicians prioritize their patient’s care.
The new test also comes with the perk of being minimally invasive and inexpensive, two words that are music to the medical community’s ears as we continue to need hospital space and funding for increasing COVID-19 cases.
The study behind the novel test looked at blood samples from 300 patients whose symptoms were vague but potentially indicative of cancer, such as weight loss and fatigue. They then analyzed the samples using NMR metabolomics technology, which uses high magnetic fields and radio waves to profile levels of natural chemicals (metabolites) in the blood.
“Cancer cells have unique metabolomic fingerprints due to their different metabolic processes,” said Oxford University researcher on the study Dr James Larkin in a statement. “We are only now starting to understand how metabolites produced by tumours can be used as biomarkers to accurately detect cancer."
Using this technique, the researchers were able to correctly detect 19 out of every 20 patients with cancer. Of those, the test was also able to identify metastatic disease with an overall accuracy of 94 percent. This was irrespective of primary cancer type, demonstrating that the test could be a pivotal first route of investigation for patients with nonspecific symptoms that don’t point to a specific organ.
“The goal is to produce a test for cancer that any [physician] can request,” said lead researcher Dr Fay Probert. “We envisage that metabolomic analysis of the blood will allow accurate, timely, and cost-effective triaging of patients with suspected cancer and could allow better prioritisation of patients based on the additional early information this test provides on their disease.”