Scientists in Britain hope a simple blood test could one day act as a 'smoke alarm' for early detection of cancer by spotting mutated blood cells that could indicate the disease at a very early stage. Matthew Stock reports.
Detecting the signs of cancer as early as possible is vital to increase chances of successful treatment. Scientists at Swansea University are trialling a method that spots mutations in red blood cells that could point to a cancer developing. They liken it to a smoke alarm. (SOUNDBITE) (English) GARETH JENKINS, PROFESSOR OF MOLECULAR CARCINOGENESIS AT SWANSEA UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "It doesn't detect the fire, it detects the presence of smoke. The by-product, the collateral damage that comes with the fire. Equally, in this blood test we don't measure the presence of cancer, we measure the presence of mutated red blood cells which are the collateral damage that occur as a by-product of the cancer developing." Using a standard analytical machine, they've optimised it to look specifically for mutations in millions of red blood cells. These mutant cells lack a specific surface protein that healthy cells normally have. Over four years of research, the team has screened about 300 individuals' blood samples. Although so far they've only carried out tests on patients with cancer of the oesophagus, the results have been encouraging. (SOUNDBITE) (English) GARETH JENKINS, PROFESSOR OF MOLECULAR CARCINOGENESIS AT SWANSEA UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "There seems to be an increase in the numbers of mutant cells between a healthy volunteer and the cancer patient, which is as much as an order of magnitude. So from 5 mutants per million up to around 40 or 50 mutants per million. So being able to set a threshold somewhere between those two values where we might be able to either inform a clinician that there is a high chance of someone having cancer or a low chance of someone having cancer." Much more research is needed before a test like this could be viable. But the team hopes it could one day sit alongside other non-invasive tests in doctors' surgeries. Similar "liquid biopsies," which offer a non-invasive alternative to standard tissue biopsies, are in development around the world. As well as blood tests they include breath and urine tests - all working towards spotting cancer before it takes hold.