'Liquid biopsy' promises early detection for cancer

'Liquid biopsy' promises early detection for cancer

"We are dealing with a needle in a haystack", Papadopoulos said. "This may mean that a screening program has to test a very large number of individuals to detect one cancer".

Some of the blood tests now used to diagnose cancer include complete blood count, blood protein testing, tumor marker tests, and circulating tumor cell tests.

Most cancers are detected by a cell biopsy, where a sample of the cancerous tissue is examined under a microscope. But detecting the scant DNA released by early stage tumors is still challenging. For the research, scientists looked at 1,005 people suffering from Cancer. And it is exciting because it confirms the usefulness of simultaneously looking for a combination of different molecules - such as DNA, RNA, proteins or metabolites - that are complementary and increase the likelihood of detecting cancer. They then added eight known protein biomarkers characteristic of specific kinds of cancer.

"The sensitivity of the test in stage 1 cancer is quite low, about 40 percent, and even with stage 1 and 2 combined it appears to be around 60 percent". It was shown to accurately detect the cancer, including in 70% or more of pancreas, ovary, liver, stomach and esophageal cancers.

So far, liquid biopsies have mostly been tested in patients with advanced cancer.

The test costs about £360 (NZ$685) for each patient.

The investigators feel that a test that will be used routinely for cancer screening must have a cost in line with or less than other now available screening tests for single cancers, such as colonoscopy.

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Maitra and others point to caveats, however.

The test was also tried on 812 people with no history of cancer to see how often it gave "false-positive" results. Detecting cancer before a person even feels sick would save countless lives and improve treatment options for most patients.

Earlier detection is key to reducing cancer deaths.

"I think we will eventually get to a point where we can detect cancer before it's otherwise visible", says Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society.

"I'm enormously excited", he said.

This will be the real test of its usefulness.

The average age of the patients at diagnosis was 64. The planned $50 million, 5-year study of up to 50,000 women is being funded by a private philanthropic group, The Marcus Foundation. "A novelty of our classification method is that it combines the probability of observing various DNA mutations together with the levels of several proteins in order to make the final call", explains Christian Tomasetti, Ph.D., associate professor of oncology and biostatistics, who developed the algorithm. The proposed price tag of $500 for the test is less than for those of other screening methods. However, brain tumours are very complex and have their unique properties hence further work will be required to determine whether this current test may be useful.

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