A simple blood test could be on the way to replacing the biopsy as the gold standard for detecting cancer, saving lives and money, according to researchers in the UK.
Findings on the revolutionary new treatment were presented this week at the annual World Conference on Lung Cancer in Colorado by Eric Lim, consultant thoracic surgeon at Royal Brompton & Harefield National Health Service (NHS) Foundation Trust.
Biopsy has hitherto been the most reliable way to establish the presence of cancerous cells, but it is an invasive, costly and sometimes risky procedure. It also takes time, which cancer patients cannot afford to lose.
The groundbreaking blood test would alleviate pressure on patients and health care providers by offering a quick, nonintrusive alternative, which would cost hundreds rather than thousands of dollars per patient.
According to Lim, who led the trial, patients would have the results “within days.”
Biopsies are expensive. A study presented in 2014 at the Chicago Multidisciplinary Symposium in Thoracic Oncology showed that a biopsy costs on average $14,634 per patient. In a random survey of 8,979 Medicare patients aged 65-74, between July 2009 and December 2010, 43.1% had negative biopsies, costing $16.5 million. In addition, almost 20% of patients undergoing lung biopsy suffered complications.
Moreover, since biopsy is a specialist procedure, often carried out during a computed tomography (CT) scan or an operation, there can be long waiting times, putting patients’ lives further at risk.
This new, simple blood test could change all that.
The new study, carried out at the Royal Brompton Hospital and the UK’s National Heart and Lung Institute (NHLI), at Imperial College London, involved 223 patients with known or suspected primary or secondary lung cancer who were about to undergo surgery. The researchers were not told whether the cancer was confirmed or not.
In nearly 70% of cases, the blood test was accurate in predicting the presence of cancer cells.
When cells die, including cancer cells, DNA is released into the bloodstream. The new blood test is able to detect three common cancer-specific gene mutations in the blood. Certain gene patterns are specific to cancer but vary according to cancer types. Lung and colorectal cancer have similar gene patterns, so the researchers expect similar tests to be useful for both types.
The researchers also compared the genetic abnormalities found in the blood with samples from tissue and found that they matched, confirming their results.
Commenting on the findings, Lim says:
“We hope this study will be a real game changer that could ultimately lead to many more lives being saved through earlier diagnosis and treatment for all types of cancer.”
The test is not currently seen as an alternative to biopsy for all patients, but it if a patient’s blood test shows a positive result, it would save them from going through biopsy before moving on to treatment. Not having to wait for the biopsy would also mean they could find out the result sooner and move on to treatment more quickly, increasing chances for survival.
Lim insists that conventional methods should still be available, especially to confirm negative results, as the test does not entirely rule out the presence of cancer cells.
While the team is “immensely excited” about the potential for the blood test to be used in a clinical setting, it cautions that more research is needed to validate the findings and to make the blood test “even more effective as a diagnostic tool.”
Last month, Medical News Today reported that a blood test could be used to predict relapses in breast cancer.