Researchers hope blood test can be ‘smoke detector’ for cancer

British Science Festival: Test seeks out by-products of disease before symptoms occur

A new kind of cancer test has been developed that can detect the disease long before any symptoms occur. It is based on a simple blood test and researchers hope it might be able to spot a range of different cancers. Image: iStock/Getty.

A new kind of cancer test has been developed that can detect the disease long before any symptoms occur. It is based on a simple blood test and researchers hope it might be able to spot a range of different cancers. Image: iStock/Getty.

 

A new kind of cancer test has been developed that can detect the disease long before any symptoms occur. It is based on a simple blood test and researchers hope it might be able to spot a range of different cancers.

At the moment the test gives a very early diagnosis for oesophageal cancer and can separate out healthy patients and patients with an early pre-cancerous condition affecting the oesophagus, said lead researcher Gareth Jenkins, professor of genetics at the Swansea University School of Medicine.

Prof Jenkins was speaking on Tuesday on the opening day of the annual British Science Festival, which is taking place in Swansea University.

“It is a novel method for early diagnosis of cancer. We think the method works,” he said, comparing the test to a smoke detector.

“It doesn’t look for the cancer itself, it looks for the scent of cancer. It is like a smoke detector at home. It doesn’t detect fire it detects smoke. We are not looking for the cancer we are looking at its by-product.”

The method looks at changes that take place in red blood cells when a person develops oesophageal cancer. It causes a small mutation in the cell and the researchers use ordinary laboratory equipment to count up the number of mutated red blood cells.

A healthy person will have almost no mutated red blood cells but a patient with oesophageal cancer will have many more mutated cells. The test is more than 80 per cent accurate even when the person with cancer shows no symptoms at all, the researchers said.

‘Massive deal’

The test could find its way into clinical use within five years, Prof Jenkins said. It would represent a “massive deal” for patients at risk of the disease given early detection greatly improves survival rates in people with this cancer. Britain sees about 7,000 new cases diagnosed each year.

It is the 13th most common cancer in Ireland with almost 500 cases seen between 1995 and 2007, according to the National Cancer Registry of Ireland.

It is a growing problem however with the rate of increase here one of the highest in the world, particularly amongst women says the Oesophageal Cancer Research Fund.

The Swansea research team including PhD candidate Dr Hasan Haboubi is now turning its sights on cancer of the pancreas to see if the test method could be used for this form of the disease.

Prof Jenkins said he expected that the test might work for other cancers but it was far too early to make any claims.

The method is based on a test originally designed for use on lab rodents developed by Litron Laboratories in the US. The Swansea group successfully redeveloped the test and then showed it could be used in cancer diagnosis in humans.