A candidate for a cheap and simple blood test for cancer has shown promise in early tests. The findings point the way towards such a procedure which, in the future, could become a widely available method of screening patients at risk of various types of cancer.
The test is non-specific — it can be used to detect the presence of a wide range of cancer types — and provides doctors with quick and reliable information on whether it has metastasized (spread) throughout the patient’s body.
Quick and easy
“Cancer cells have unique metabolomic fingerprints due to their different metabolic processes. We are only now starting to understand how metabolites produced by tumors can be used as biomarkers to accurately detect cancer” says Dr. James Larkin from the University of Oxford, first author of the study.
“We have already demonstrated that this technology can successfully identify if patients with multiple sclerosis are progressing to the later stages of disease, even before trained clinicians could tell. It is very exciting that the same technology is now showing promise in other diseases, like cancer.”
The study worked with samples harvested from 300 patients that were showing non-specific cancer symptoms, including fatigue and weight loss. All participants were recruited through the Oxfordshire Suspected CANcer (SCAN) Diagnostic Pathway. It involved the researchers assessing whether their test could tell apart patients with a range of solid tumors from those who were cancer-free.
All in all, the test correctly detected the disease in 19 out of every 20 patients with cancer. Apart from this, the test identified the metastatic phase of the disease with an overall accuracy of 94%.
This is the first method to be developed that can determine metastatic cancer from a simple blood test without previous knowledge of the type of cancer the patient is suffering from, the authors explain.
Unlike many other blood tests for cancer, which look for genetic material from tumorous cells, the current test relies on a technique called NMR metabolomics. This involves the use of magnetic fields and radio waves to measure metabolite levels in the patient’s blood.
Patients with localized cancer, those with metastatic cancer, and healthy individuals all have different metabolite profiles in their blood, the authors explain. Raw data from the test is then run through an algorithm that distinguishes between these states and offers a diagnosis.
The authors are hopeful that their test can help doctors detect and assess cancer much more quickly and cheaply than ever before. Although the test itself cannot accurately pinpoint the particular type of cancer in question, it still is a very powerful tool in determining who needs further tests, and who’s in the clear.
Early detection of cancer improves a patient’s chances of a successful outcome. Being rapid and cheap to administer, this test could help improve the overall rate of successful cancer treatments, especially in patients who only show non-specific symptoms (for whom a diagnosis generally takes longer).
“This work describes a new way of identifying cancer. The goal is to produce a test for cancer that any GP can request,” says Dr. Fay Probert, lead researcher of the study from the University of Oxford. “We envisage that metabolomic analysis of the blood will allow accurate, timely and cost-effective triaging of patients with suspected cancer, and could allow better prioritization of patients based on the additional early information this test provides on their disease.”
For now, the test is still in its early testing stages. Further research with larger cohorts of patients will be needed to give us a better and more reliable understanding of it, its capabilities, and its limitations.
The paper “Metabolomic Biomarkers in Blood Samples Identify Cancers in a Mixed Population of Patients with Nonspecific Symptoms,” has been published in the journal Clinical Cancer Research.