Strengthening the foundations for early detection

from Cancer Research UK Science Blog by Emma Smith

Spotting and treating cancer in its early stages remains the most powerful way to give patients the best possible chance of surviving the disease. According to England’s Independent Cancer Taskforce, diagnosing more cases early could save up to 11,000 lives a year in England alone.

On top of this, the treatments for cancers diagnosed at an early stage can have less of an impact on patients’ quality of life, and improve their experience of care.

Making sure more patients are diagnosed early is vital to making progress against cancer – it’s a theme we set out in in our strategy to beat cancer sooner.

There are various ways that better information, awareness and healthcare could improve early diagnosis, but what role will scientific research into cancer biology play?

To find ways to spot cancers in their earliest stages, we need a renewed effort to understand and track the early stages of cancer biology – a relatively new and diverse field of research called ‘early detection’. Finding ways to detect cancers early could contribute to diagnosing more cancers early, and hopefully lead to more people surviving the disease.

To try to jump-start progress in this field, and to build a bigger international community to focus on this problem, last year we started working with experts the Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health & Science University in the US.

And in June, at the Knight Institute in Portland, we helped run the very first in a series of joint international conferences, bringing together many of the world’s leading scientists in the field of early detection, (including many of our own leading experts). One of the highlights of the discussion involved exosomes…

Looking for cancer’s ‘fingerprints’

A key theme was around work on so-called ‘liquid’ biopsies – tests to look in blood samples for things like cancer cells that have broken free from tumours, DNA released from cancer cells, or mysterious little packages released by cells called exosomes.

There’s already lots of focus on how liquid biopsies could improve treatment for patients after they’ve been diagnosed, including looking for warning signs that cancer is relapsing after treatment. But do liquid biopsies have more potential?

Attention is now moving towards whether liquid biopsies can pick up early warning signs of cancer in people who feel fit and well and don’t have any symptoms.

Scientists, including world-leader Professor Dennis Lo from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, talked about their research into potential ‘red flags’ that could indicate something is amiss, including faults in DNA, signs of viruses linked to cancer (such as the Epstein Barr virus (EBV)), and how to spot rare tumour cells in the bloodstream.

A blood test for cancer is an exciting prospect, but are there other bodily samples worth searching in? Some researchers think so, and discussed evidence that cancer can leave its ‘fingerprints’ in poo, sweat, urine, and exhaled breath too.

Interesting (and sometimes heated) talking points included whether tests could ever be sensitive enough to spot very early cancers or precancerous cells, and whether a single test could ever detect many different types of cancer.

Source – Cancer Research UK

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