New blood-based test is first to identify cancer AND tell if it has spread


A huge problem in cancer treatment is that often people are diagnosed too late when cancer has already spread. The sooner cancer is diagnosed, the better chances of successful treatment and survival. Excitingly, a publication by the University of Oxford published today describes a new minimally invasive and inexpensive blood test that can identify cancer in patients with non-specific symptoms. This technology isn’t widely available, but the research so far is promising and it’s the first blood-based test that both detects cancer AND identifies if it has spread.

Cancer that’s diagnosed at an early stage, when it isn’t too large and hasn’t spread, is more likely to be treated successfully.

That’s why it’s so exciting that the University of Oxford has been researching a new test that in the future could help clinicians detect cancer and assess cancer stage in one go.

The early success of this technology makes it the first blood-based test that can not only detect cancer in this population but can also simultaneously identify if cancer has spread.

The study analysed samples from 300 patients who were recruited through the Oxfordshire Suspected CANcer (SCAN) pathway.

These patients had non-specific but concerning symptoms of cancer, such as fatigue and weight loss, and the test correctly detected cancer in 19 out of every 20 patients.

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This early cancer detection test uses NMR metabolomics technology to analyse a simple blood sample.

The team at Oxford Cancer said: “This test shows promise to help clinicians detect cancer and assess cancer stage in the future.

“Unlike many blood-based tests for cancer, which detect genetic material from tumours, this test uses a technique called NMR metabolomics, which uses high magnetic fields and radio waves to profile levels of natural chemicals (metabolites) in the blood.

“Healthy individuals, people with localised cancer, and people with metastatic cancer each have different profiles of blood metabolites, which can be detected and then analysed by the researchers’ algorithms to distinguish between these states.”

The researchers managed to identify metastatic disease in patients with cancer with an overall accuracy of 94 percent.

These results make this the first technology to be able to determine the metastatic status of cancer from a simple blood test, without prior knowledge of the primary cancer type.

Dr James Larkin, researcher on the study from the University of Oxford, said: “Cancer cells have unique metabolomic fingerprints due to their different metabolic processes.
“We are only now starting to understand how metabolites produced by tumours can be used as biomarkers to accurately detect cancer.

“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.”

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It’s well-known that cancers detected earlier are more likely to be treated successfully, but there is no real way to ensure you get diagnosed early if you have no symptoms or aren’t concerned and tested.

The team at Oxford Cancer explained: “This rapid and inexpensive test could help to overcome many barriers to the early detection of cancer, especially in patients that present with non-specific symptoms, which do not direct investigations towards a specific organ.

“This new test is not specific to a single cancer type and has shown promise in this traditionally challenging clinical context, including the potential to detect some cancers in the community before conventional imaging is performed.”

So where can you get tested? Well, you won’t be able to have this specific test done just yet.

However, future studies with larger patient cohorts will further evaluate this technique for the earlier detection of new cancers and potential clinical applications.

NHS Rapid Diagnostic Centres, similar to Oxfordshire’s SCAN pathway, are currently being set up across the NHS to support faster and earlier cancer diagnosis in all patients with symptoms that could indicate cancer.

Dr Fay Probert, the lead researcher of the study from the University of Oxford, said: “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 prioritisation of patients based on the additional early information this test provides on their disease.”

If you’re concerned about cancer, see your GP immediately.

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