According to the World Health Organization, Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide and has accounted for nearly 10 million deaths in 2020.
Top medical experts generally agree that early diagnosis and treatment of cancer leads to reduced cancer mortality and is one of the most critical stages for improving patient outcomes.
However, some cancers are harder to diagnose than other forms of cancer especially if the patient presents nonspecific signs and symptoms.
In a recent development, a publication by University of Oxford researchers have identified a new way to detect if a patient has cancer and whether it has spread through an inexpensive blood test.
Currently, there is no clear pathway for someone which non-specific symptoms that could be cancer to be referred to a specialist for further investigation other than speaking with a general practitioner.
If the practitioner could not identify the cause of the symptoms, the patient may be asked to come back if the symptoms get worse and possibly delay potential cancer treatment should the symptoms be related to cancer.
The new blood test, if validated, could allow cancer patients with non-specific symptoms to be identified earlier when they are more likely to respond to cancer treatments.
The University of Oxford study, published on August 11, 2021, in Clinical Cancer Research, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research, describes a new type of blood test that can be used to detect a wide variety of cancers and whether these cancers have metastasized (or spread) throughout the body.
The authors of the study hypothesized that biomarkers within the blood metabolome could be used to identify cancer cells in a group of patients that general practitioners refer to as the “low-risk, but not no-risk” patient group that may not experience cancer-specific symptoms.
By analyzing blood samples from 300 patients that were recruited through the Oxfordshire Suspected Cancer (SCAN) pathway, the team of scientists and researchers assessed whether the new blood test could distinguish patients with a range of cancer symptoms from those without cancer.
Results of the study found that cancer was correctly detected in 19 out of every 20 patients with cancer through the new blood test. In addition, for those with cancer, the test was able to identify the metastatic disease with an overall accuracy of 94 percent.
Differing from many blood-based tests for cancer that detects genetic material from tumours, the new blood test utilizes nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) metabolic analysis, which uses high magnetic fields and radio waves to profile levels of chemicals (metabolites) in the blood.
Healthy individuals have different metabolic “fingerprints” to those with localized or metastatic cancer, thus through the NMR metabolic analysis, researchers can accurately identify whether or not a patient has cancer as well as if cancer has spread within the body.
NMR metabolic analysis is not new, however, as the same Oxford research team has previously used the method of analysis to detect cancers in animals as well as distinguishing between the differing metastatic disease burden in these animals.
Through NMR metabolic analysis and the results of the study, the new blood test would be the first technology that can determine the spread of cancer cells in the body through a simple blood test, without prior knowledge of the primary cancer type.
Dr. James Larkin, a researcher on the study from the University of Oxford, says: ‘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 the disease, even before trained clinicians could tell. It is very exciting that the same technology is now showing promise in other diseases, like cancer.’
As cancers detected earlier are more likely to be treated successfully, the new rapid and inexpensive blood test could help many overcome many barriers to the early detection of cancer, especially in patients that present non-cancer-specific symptoms.
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.
Dr. Fay Probert, the lead researcher of the study from the University of Oxford, says: ‘This work describes a new way of identifying cancer. The goal is to produce a test for cancer that any GP can request. 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.’
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