Every breakthrough in cancer research brings us closer to the day when there will be a cure. Every time there’s a breakthrough in treatment, in detection, or in prevention, we get excited and hope that the next breakthrough will finally bring and end to cancer. Until that day arrives, early detection is the best defense against cancer mortality.
On that front, there is some good news. John Hopkins researchers have developed a blood test that screens for 8 different types of cancer at once. They’ve dubbed the test CancerSEEK, and it’s a noninvasive blood test that looks for signs of cancer by looking for cancer gene mutations as well as common cancer proteins that can be found in a patient’s blood. It has the potential to change the way people are screened for cancer.
What Types of Cancer Can the test detect?
The test detects cancer of the ovary, liver, stomach, pancreas, esophagus, colorectum, lung, and breast. These 8 types of cancer account for over 60% of all cancer deaths in the United States. And early detection is one of the keys to reducing those deaths.
Ovarian, liver, stomach, pancreatic, and esophageal cancers currently have no screening test, so CancerSEEK could not only make it possible to screen for these cancers, but it would make it relatively easy to do so. The test could be done along with routine blood work by a primary care provider and is projected to cost less than $500.
Dr. Cristian Tomasetti, from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told the BBC that finding tumors early enough to still be able to remove them could make a “night and day” difference for cancer patients. CancerSEEK is perhaps especially exciting for those working to treat pancreatic cancers: pancreatic cancers have the highest mortality rate of all major cancers and are rarely detected early.
How Effective Is CancerSEEK?
The CancerSEEK trial was conducted on 1,005 patients with non-metastatic cancers ranging from stage I to stage III as well as on 812 patients without cancer. The rate of false positives among the healthy patients was less than 1%: only 7 out of the 812 were incorrectly tested as having cancer. In the patients with cancer, the test was accurate an average of 70% of the time. 70% may not seem outstanding, but remember that for five of the cancers, there is currently no screening test available. The test did best with ovarian cancer with a 98% accuracy rate.
Bert Vogelstein, professor of oncology at John Hopkins, said, “This test represents the next step in changing the focus of cancer research from late-stage disease to early disease, which I believe will be critical to reducing cancer deaths in the long term.”
Researchers see this as a major step toward a universal test for cancer and are calling the test “enormously exciting.” CancerSEEK is now being tested on people who have not been diagnosed with cancer, and that will be the real test.
Of course, more research and tests are needed. CancerSEEK only had a 40% accuracy rate in detecting stage 1 cancer, and more testing in the general population is needed before making final determinations about the test’s feasibility as part of cancer screening. Still, the test is an important step—especially for those cancers for which there is currently no screening test.
Dr. Gert Attard, consultant medical oncologist at the Royal Marsden National Health Service Foundation Trust in Britain, told the BBC, “I’m enormously excited. This is the Holy Grail—a blood test to diagnose cancer without all the other procedures like scans or colonoscopy.”
A universal screening would have a huge impact on the medical community as well as the general population. A noninvasive, relatively affordable cancer screening could change cancer detection, and therefore cancer treatment, throughout the United States.
Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.