The trend is clear: medicine is becoming more and more personalized. Ultimately, when you’ll enter a hospital for a diagnosis or treatment, a (likely digital) doctor will use tailored solutions to address your health needs, all based on your past medical and genetic records. Considering diagnosis, just a few drops of blood will be enough to diagnose a plethora of afflictions. Take the latest news coming from the The Institute of Cancer Research in London, for instace. There, British doctors were able accurately predict which breast cancer patient will relapse next by tracking key mutations of residual cancer cells found in the blood. It’s a very powerful tool – one that will probably become standard practice soon.

Image: Dr Meletis

Image: Dr Meletis

Cancer is devastating, both for patients and family. What makes it particularly terrifying is that, once you get treated, there’s always this muted fear lying in the background. This silent horror that cancer will one day relapse.

Testing for breast cancer

The key to fighting cancer is finding it early, whether we’re speaking of the first stage or relapse(s). Right now, treated cancer patients have biopsies at regular time intervals to see whether there’s any risk of relapsing. The new method employed by the British researchers might be just as effective, only cheaper and at the fraction of the hassle.

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Researchers gathered tumor and blood samples from 55 breast cancer patients with early-stage disease who had received chemotherapy followed by surgery. These patients were potentially cured of their breast cancer, but statistically speaking some of them should have the cancer relapse. Then, a technique called “mutation tracking” was used to identify tumor DNA in the bloodstream. .

Women who tested positive for tumor DNA in the blood were at 12 times the risk of relapse. The relapse was detected on average 7.9 months before any visible signs emerged. It’s worth mentioning that the test works for all known types of breast cancer, as reported in Science Translational Medicine.

The test are not only important for diagnosis, but basic science as well. Armed with thousands of such tests, doctors can have a better knowledge of how leftover cancer mutates, develops and spreads over time.

“This important study suggests that looking for tumour DNA in a patient’s blood after they’ve been treated for early stage breast cancer could help monitor them, and even make predictions about whether their disease may come back,” said  Professor Jacqui Shaw, an expert in circulating tumour DNA from Cancer Research UK.

“And it may be possible to do this before tumours become visible on conventional scans. But there is some way to go before this could be developed into a test that doctors could use routinely, and doing so is never simple.”

“Finding less invasive ways of diagnosing and monitoring cancer is really important. And fishing for fragments of tumour DNA, or even rogue cancer cells, released into the bloodstream has emerged as a hugely promising way to do this,” Prof. Shaw added.

After a couple more rounds of clinical trials, mutation tracking could become common practice within a couple of years.

This week has been particularly fruitful for cancer research. In other news, cancer cells have been programmed back to normal by scientists in a breakthrough which could lead to new treatments and even reverse tumour growth.