A simple blood test that can detect cancer before any symptoms are noticeable has been developed by researchers in a breakthrough that could potentially save thousands of lives.
The scientists, who unveiled the test at the British Science Festival in Swansea, Wales, compared the new test to a “smoke detector,” because, like the lifesaving device, the test would not actually identify the cancer itself, but rather signs of cancer: changes shown to occur in red blood cells in the disease’s earliest stages.
Discovering cancer early is a key factor in successful treatment. If a tumor is caught in a single part of the body, there is a much better chance that it can be removed surgically. However, if the cancer has spread to other organs, the chance the patient will die is much higher.
Because it is a simple blood test costing just $50, it could be used to monitor people with a high risk of getting the disease.
Professor Gareth Jenkins, who led the study, said: “This test detects cancer, by detecting the ‘smoke’ – mutated blood cells. The old adage of no smoke without fire also applies to ‘no cancer without mutation’, as mutation is the main driving force for cancer development.”
The test takes a few hours with standard laboratory equipment. The researchers worked on developing the test over the past four years, studying 300 healthy people, patients with signs of pre-cancer and patients with the esophageal form of the disease.
Professor Jenkins said one of the reasons why esophageal cancer was so deadly was that it was often diagnosed late. The average patient lives for about a year after diagnosis and just 15% live for five years.
Dr Áine McCarthy added: “Finding new ways to detect cancer early – especially cancers that are hard to treat like esophageal cancer – is vital to improve survival.
“That’s why studies like this, which used blood samples to detect background DNA damage as a sign of cancer, are exciting because they could lead to more esophageal cancers being diagnosed in the early stages.”
The next step is larger scale studies to confirm the results and show that the test is reliable before it can be used in the clinics.