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Health: Cheap blood test is FIRST to both identify if a patient has cancer and if it has spread

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A new way to diagnose cancer: Simple and cheap blood test is the first EVER to simultaneously identify if a patient has the disease and if it has spread

  • The new test was developed by a team of University of Oxford-led researchers
  • It works by measuring chemicals called metabolites in the patient’s blood
  • Those with localised, metastatic and no cancer have different metabolic profiles
  • The team hope that the test could help to improve the early diagnosis of cancer










In a first for cancer diagnosis, a cheap and simple-to-administer test has shown the ability to tell if a patient has the disease as well as if it has spread, or ‘metastasised’.

Developed by a team of researchers led from the University of Oxford, the test uses magnetic fields and radio waves to measure ‘metabolites’ in the blood.

Healthy individuals, people with localised cancer and those with metastatic cancer have metabolomic profiles that can be distinguished by the team’s algorithms.

The test, the team said, works on a range of different cancers and can identify the presence of the disease even in patients with non-specific symptoms.

Being both rapid and inexpensive, it may help overcome some of the usual barriers to early cancer diagnosis and improve the success rate of subsequent treatments.

The approach is different to those traditionally used to test for cancer, which have typically relied on detecting the presence of genetic material from tumours.

In a first for cancer diagnosis, a cheap and simple-to-administer blood test has shown the ability to tell if a patient has the disease and if it has spread, or 'metastasised' (stock image)

In a first for cancer diagnosis, a cheap and simple-to-administer blood test has shown the ability to tell if a patient has the disease and if it has spread, or ‘metastasised’ (stock image)

‘Cancer cells have unique metabolomic fingerprints due to their different metabolic processes,’ explained lead paper author and oncologist James Larkin of the University of Oxford.

‘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.’ 

In their study, Dr Larkin and colleagues analysed blood samples collected from 300 patients — each of whom exhibited non-specific but concerning symptoms of potential cancer, such as fatigue and weight loss.

The subjects were recruited as part of the so-called Oxfordshire Suspected Cancer (or ‘SCAN’) pathway. Similar NHS Rapid Diagnostic Centres are being set up across the country as part of an effort to support faster and earlier cancer diagnoses.

The researchers found that their test correctly identified the presence of solid tumours — of various types — in 19 out of every 20 of the patients with cancer.

Furthermore, the test was able to identify metastatic disease to an overall accuracy of 94 per cent, making the approach the first to be able to determine a cancer’s metastatic status without knowing of the type of the primary cancer in question.

With their initial study complete, the team are now planning to evaluate the new blood test in larger cohorts of patients, with a mind to clinical application.

‘This work describes a new way of identifying cancer. The goal is to produce a test for cancer that any GP can request,’ said paper author and analytical chemical biologist Fay Probert, also of the University of Oxford.

‘We envisage that metabolomic analysis of the blood will allow accurate, timely and cost-effective triaging of patients with suspected cancer.

This, she noted, it ‘could allow better prioritisation of patients based on the additional early information this test provides on their disease.’

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Clinical Cancer Research.  

HOW DO TUMOURS GROW?

Cancer cells initially stay within the body tissue from where they developed, for example the breast ducts.

They then grow and divide to create more cells, which end up being a tumour. A tumour may contain millions of cancer cells.

All body tissues are surrounded by a membrane that keeps its cells inside. If cancer cells break through this layer, the tumour is called invasive.

As a tumour grows, its centre moves further away from the blood vessels in the area where it is growing.

This causes the centre to have less oxygen and nutrients, which cancer cells cannot live without. They therefore send out signals, called angiogenic factors, that encourage new blood vessels into the tumour.

Once a tumour has its own blood supply, it can rapidly expand by stimulating the growth of hundreds of new capillaries to bring it oxygen and nutrients. 

As it grows, the mass puts pressure on surrounding structures. But how it enters these tissues is not fully understood.

One theory is it forces itself into normal tissue. This blocks blood vessels, which causes the healthy tissue to die and makes it easier for the cancer to continue to spread.

Many cancers also contain high levels of enzymes that break down healthy cells and tissues. 

They also produce a mysterious substance, which growing research suggests stimulates them to move, however, this is unclear.

Source: Cancer Research UK 

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