It's a little too soon to celebrate, but scientists in the U.K. may have come up with a new method that could radically revolutionize early detection of cancer. It's a simple blood test that has the ability to detect cancer cells long before a biopsy can.
Since early detection is very important in the management of many cancers, once validated, this test could save plenty lives. Right now, it works beautifully that is, half the time.
Dr. Eric Lim, a consultant thoracic surgeon and senior lecturer at Imperial College in London presented these results earlier this week in Denver at the 16th annual World Conference on Lung Cancer.
Biopsies and CT scans are now standard practice for detecting and diagnosing cancer, but there are inherent flaws:
- By the time a potentially-cancerous growth can be seen, it has already grown, and possibly spread
- Almost half of biopsies reveal that the tissue sample is non-cancerous
- A biopsy costs about $15,000
- Twenty percent of those who undergo lung biopsies will have complications from the procedure
The way this new procedure works is quite interesting. When cells die, they break down and release their DNA into the blood. But, it is becoming increasingly clear that gene mutations play a very important role in the development of cancer.
Using very sensitive detection methods, Lim's group was able to "see" three specific DNA fragments that contain common, known mutations. For example, very similar mutations are found in lung and colon cancer. These can not only be detected, but the subtle difference in the pattern of the gene fragment makes it possible to distinguish between the two.
How well does it work? Very well, and not so well.
The test, which can be done in a few days, was successful in picking up lung cancer 68 percent of the time. But, there are limitations. When people had lung cancer, the test detected this with 98 percent accuracy. But, when the test came back negative, it was accurate only 35 percent of the time. In other words, the test is very good at detecting lung cancer, but not good for ruling it out.
While not perfect, these are exciting results that could completely redefine cancer detection and treatment in the future.
"We hope this study will be a real game changer," said Dr. Lim, "that could ultimately lead to many more lives being saved through earlier diagnosis and treatment for all types of cancer."