Scientists close to developing a blood test that can detect cancers

Wouldn’t it be great if you could swing by a pharmacy or visit the nearest health center, get one all-purpose test kit, draw some blood, wait a few minutes, and find out definitively whether or not you have some form of cancer? That’s the dream behind a new research study recently published in the journal Science, where researchers say that they are closer than ever to making that necessary breakthrough. If successful, their method for a new type of blood test could be used to detect one or more of up to eight different cancers. And the best part is that it has the potential to work even before cancer symptoms finally appear.

According to Nickolas Papadopoulos, a professor of oncology and pathology at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, the new approach he devised along with his colleagues at the medical school combines two different methods into one test. They have dubbed their new two-in-one test CancerSEEK, and it’s designed to detect eight major cancers, namely breast, lung, colon, liver, stomach, ovarian, pancreatic, and esophageal cancer.

These cancers have been chosen primarily for their prominence. “We selected those eight cancers based on how frequent they are, also [because] a lot of them do not have any screening modality right now,” said Papadopoulos.

So far, the researchers have managed to test their new method on a pool of 1,005 cancer patients. After analyzing their test results, the researchers concluded that signs of cancer were present in about 70 percent of them. The researchers also looked at 812 people who were not diagnosed with cancer, and found that only seven of them, or less than one percent, had false readings that found cancer in them. This low false-positive rate is said to be highly critical “for any test that could be used widely to screen people for cancer.”

Although it’s still a work in progress, and the researchers are currently looking for ways to increase the efficacy of the test, they believe that they’ve made great progress so far. Referring to the 40 percent success rate in detecting the earliest stage 1 cancers in patients, Papadopoulos said, “we still think this is a very important milestone in detecting cancers in asymptomatic people. That could save their life.”

According to Joshua Schiffman, an oncologist and cancer researcher from the Hunstman Cancer Center at the University of Utah, the research detailing the new method is truly something worth looking at. “I am incredible excited by this new paper,” he said. “This is the paper that’s going to set the field in motion.” Schiffman was not involved in the study and is commenting simply as an outside observer with knowledge and expertise in the same field as the researchers.

But while he finds the new method promising, he identifies the many issues that need to be worked out before it gets deployed for public use. Even if the blood test method ends up being reliable among patients who still haven’t been diagnosed with any type of cancer, there could still be problems with its use. One example is evident in the 40 percent success rate of detection. This means that it fails to detect more cancers than it can find.

“The thing we worry about quite often is … if we have a test result that is negative we don’t want to give false reassurance to the patient,” Schiffman explained. He simply wants to prevent patients from thinking to themselves, “Even though I have this weird stomach pain that won’t go away, I know it’s not cancer. I’m not going to go to the doctor because the CancerSEEK test told me it was negative.”

For now, the researchers are trying to perfect their new method. That involves first demonstrating that their new test can be useful in patients who don’t have any cancer symptoms. Also, the rate of false alarms must remain low, or else patients will go on pointless “medical odysseys.” All of that will take a while to complete, but at least the researchers seem to be already going in the right direction.

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