Simple Blood Test to Detect Cancer Is in the Works

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s Kimmel Cancer Center have taken a giant step forward in cancer detection, with a simple blood test that screens for eight common cancer types—ovarian, liver, stomach, pancreatic, esophagus, colorectal, lung, and breast—and helps identify the location of the cancer.

These cancers are responsible for more than 60 percent of cancer deaths in the U.S., and there is currently no screening test for five of them. The test would enable early detection of the disease rather than late-stage, when treatment is sometimes no longer feasible.

The test, called CancerSEEK, is a noninvasive test that screens for the presence of cancer gene mutations from DNA circulating in the blood (liquid biopsy). The eventual goal is to have the test managed by primary healthcare givers at a cost of under $500.

The Positives. In the study, CancerSEEK was tested on 1,005 patients with non-metastatic, but clinically detected, cancers of the eight aforementioned types . In addition, the test was applied to 812 healthy controls. In participants with cancer, CancerSEEK was positive in a median of 70 percent of the eight cancer types, with sensitivities ranging from 98 percent in ovarian cancers to 33 percent in breast cancers. The test also was able to localize the cancer to a small number of sites in a median of 83 percent of the patients, with the majority of information derived from protein markers. Accuracy was highest for colorectal cancers and lowest for lung cancers. For the five cancers that have no screening test—ovarian, liver, stomach, pancreatic and esophageal—sensitivity ranged from 69 percent to 98 percent.

The Limitations. The same cancer-related proteins detected by the test also appear in people with inflammatory diseases, such as certain types of arthritis, which could lead to false-positive results. In addition, the proportion of cancers of each type was not representative of those in the U.S. as a whole.

What This Means For You. Researcher Bert Vogelstein, professor of oncology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, said, “This test represents the next step in changing the focus of cancer research from late-stage to early disease, which I believe will be critical to reducing cancer deaths in the long term.”

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