Researchers from Harvard Medical School are developing a simple blood test which could detect the signs of 50 types of cancer at its early stages, often before there are any symptoms. Early detection and treatment is one of the ‘holy grails’ of cancer treatment, as it makes it easier to eradicate tumours.
The researchers say that early trials indicate a 96 percent accuracy rate, almost eliminating the ‘false positives’ which can be a problem in diagnosis.
The report, in Annals of Oncology, says that patients trials are continuing, but that it may be some years before the technique is reliable and safe for common use.
The test looks for telltale fragments of DNA shed by the cancer into the bloodstream. Though this means that it cannot detect types o caner which do not shed DNS, the types which do tend to be the most dangerous and likely to spread.
The researchers, from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, are working with UK colleagues from The Francis Crick Institute and University College London, and have already tested more than 4,000 samples from patients with and without cancer.
More than 50 types of cancer, such as bowel, lung and ovarian, were included, and in 96% of the samples, the test accurately detected the type of cancer.
One of the lead researchers, Prof Geoff Oxnard, said: “This blood test seems to have all the features needed to be used on a population scale, as a multi-cancer screening test.
“Everyone asks, ‘when will a test like this will be ready for use?’.
“Based upon this successful clinical validation in thousands of patients, the test has actually now been launched for limited use on clinical trials.
“But before this blood test is used routinely, we will probably need to see results from clinical studies like this to more fully understand the test performance.
“Certainly the field is moving quickly and it makes us hopeful that blood-based cancer detection will be a reality.”
Dr David Crosby, Cancer Research UK early detection head, commented: “Detecting cancers at their earliest stages, when they are less aggressive and more treatable, has a huge potential to save lives and we sorely need tech innovations that can turn this potential into reality.
“Although this test is still at an early stage of development, the initial results are encouraging.
“And if the test can be fine-tuned to be more efficient at catching cancers in their earliest stages, it could become a tool for early detection.
“But more research is needed to improve the test’s ability to catch early cancers and we still need to explore how it might work in a real cancer-screening scenario.”