Blood Test to Detect Early Cancers on the Horizon

September 11, 2017

Have you ever wished a simple blood test could detect cancer before your symptoms even appeared? Well, your wish could come true sooner than you think.

Recently, scientists at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center reported that they have developed a test “that spots tiny amounts of cancer-specific DNA in blood and have used it to accurately identify more than half of 138 people with relatively early-stage colorectal, breast, lung and ovarian cancers. The test, the scientists say, is novel in that it can distinguish between DNA shed from tumors and other altered DNA that can be mistaken for cancer biomarkers.” The report was featured in the Aug. 16 issue of Science Translational Medicine http://stm.sciencemag.org/content/9/403/eaan2415.

For physicians like Dr. James Pond, medical director of Shore’s laboratory and chairman of Shore Cancer Center’s Cancer Program Committee, an announcement like this is truly exciting.

“A test like this is like the Holy Grail of medical oncology. It’s really cutting edge,” Pond says.  “The test is in the research stages now. It will happen, but it may take five years or more before it’s routinely available on the market for everyday use.”

Dr. Pond says that much work needs to be done before this test could become part of your annual check-up.

“First, the number of people studied is very low. The research was performed on samples from only 200 people with all four stages of cancer in three countries. Now that they’ve pinpointed that cancer-specific DNA can be detected in blood, they need to test it on many more people. Second, they need to improve the technology to make it cost effective. Third, the test needs to improve both the sensitivity and specificity, so that it is as effective as possible. In order to be an effective screening tool, you want a sensitive test that will not miss the true positive cases.  You also don’t want the test to create false-positives, where the test says the patient has cancer but they actually do not. That could send someone who may not have cancer down a complicated path of tests and unnecessary anxiety. Finally, the test will need to be approved by the FDA. The FDA is especially tough on companies that claim to be able to diagnose a condition using only blood tests. However, there are many biotech companies with big investors working to make this test a reality, so the funding is there to make it happen.”

“We’re all following this research closely and look forward to the day when we can actually use this type of test to catch cancer early and save lives.”