Yesterday, England's National Health Service (NHS) launched the world’s largest trial of a blood test that can detect more than 50 types of cancer before symptoms appear.
The trial aims to recruit 140,000 volunteers from different ethnic backgrounds, aged between 50 and 77, and living in eight areas across England. The test itself, the Galleri test, is a simple blood test that checks for the earliest signs of cancer. Ideally, it can be used to identify cancers at their earliest stages – stage one or two.
When it comes to detecting cancer, the earlier the better. A diagnosis at stage one can increase chances of survival by five to 10 times, compared to a diagnosis at stage four. The new test, developed by healthcare company GRAIL, is particularly effective at identifying cancers that are difficult to diagnose early – head and neck, bowel, lung, pancreatic, and throat cancers, for example.
“This quick and simple blood test could mark the beginning of a revolution in cancer detection and treatment here and around the world,” NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said in a statement.
“By finding cancer before signs and symptoms even appear, we have the best chance of treating it and we can give people the best possible chance of survival.”
The Galleri test works by identifying fragments of DNA that have been shed by tumors into the bloodstream. Participants in the trial, who must not have received a cancer diagnosis in the last three years, will therefore be asked to give an initial blood sample, before returning after 12 months, and then again after two years, to give repeat samples.
The trial is being run by Cancer Research UK and King’s College London Cancer Prevention Trials Unit in partnership with NHS England and GRAIL. It is a randomized control trial, meaning that half of the individuals involved will have their blood sample tested with the Galleri test and half will not. The samples of this latter group will be stored and may be screened in the future, allowing the scientists to find out whether the test does in fact help to identify cancers early. Neither group will know if they’re in the test group, unless early signs of cancer are detected, in which case the individual would be notified and referred for further tests.
Currently, the trial is operating through eight NHS Cancer Alliances spanning Cheshire and Merseyside, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, the North East, West Midlands, East Midlands, East of England, Kent and Medway, and South East London. Results are expected by 2023, and, if successful, it could be rolled out to a further 1 million people in England in 2024 and 2025.
According to the NHS, one in two people will develop some form of cancer in their lifetime. It is therefore hugely important that we develop screening methods capable of identifying these cancers as early as possible, to open up a broader range of treatment options and improve chances of survival.
Previous research in the US has found that the Galleri test identified more than 67 percent of 12 pre-specified stage one to three cancers, which account for approximately two-thirds of annual US cancer deaths. It also picked up around 41 percent of all cancers.
“The test could be a game-changer for early cancer detection and we are excited to be leading this important research,” said Professor Peter Sasieni, Director of The Cancer Research UK & King’s College London Cancer Prevention Trials Unit and one of the trial’s lead investigators.