Cancer breakthrough: Blood test detects cancer years before symptoms

Jul 23, 2020
A new blood test can pick up cancers up to four years before symptoms appear. Source: Getty.

Cancer is a leading cause of death in Australia. One in two Australian men and women will be diagnosed with cancer by the age of 85. But when it comes to the cancer survival rate, early detection is key.

Now, researchers from Fudan University in China have made a significant breakthrough by developing a blood test that could potentially be used to detect certain kinds of cancer up to four years before a conventional doctor’s diagnosis. The findings were published in Nature Communications on Tuesday.

The non-invasive blood test — called PanSeer — correctly detected five common types of cancer (stomach, esophageal, colorectal, lung or liver cancer) in 95 per cent of 191 asymptomatic individuals who were later diagnosed.

In the study, Kun Zhang and his colleagues performed an analysis of plasma samples obtained from 605 asymptomatic individuals, who were aged between 35 and 85, with the median age being 62 years old. They also profiled plasma samples from an additional 223 diagnosed cancer patients as well as 200 primary tumour and normal tissue samples.

“We demonstrated that five types of cancer can be detected through a DNA methylation-based blood test up to four years before conventional diagnosis,” the team wrote in the journal.

However, the authors said that the test was unlikely to be predicting who will develop cancer later but rather picking up on cancerous growths that had not yet caused symptoms. More research is needed to confirm the test’s potential, they said.

This isn’t the first cancer breakthrough of its kind. Last year, researchers from the University of East Anglia and the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital made health headlines after they developed a urine test that diagnoses aggressive prostate cancer and determines whether men require treatment up to five years earlier than standard clinical methods. The test, dubbed Prostate Urine Risk (PUR), can also identify patients who are up to eight times less likely to need treatment within five years of diagnosis.

Prostate cancer typically develops slowly and often doesn’t require treatment in a man’s lifetime, but it’s currently difficult for health professionals to determine which tumours will become aggressive. A biopsy is actually what diagnoses the cancer, but this can cause significant damage to the prostate.

“Prostate cancer is more commonly a disease men die with rather than from. Unfortunately, we currently lack the ability to tell which men diagnosed with prostate cancer will need radical treatment and which men will not,” lead author Shea Connell from UEA’s Norwich Medical School said in a statement at the time.

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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