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cancer detection

New ‘Liquid Biopsy’ Shows Early Promise in Detecting Cancer

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Liquid Biopsy Schematic

Caption: Liquid biopsy. Tumor cells shed protein and DNA into bloodstream for laboratory analysis and early cancer detection.

Early detection usually offers the best chance to beat cancer. Unfortunately, many tumors aren’t caught until they’ve grown relatively large and spread to other parts of the body. That’s why researchers have worked so tirelessly to develop new and more effective ways of screening for cancer as early as possible. One innovative approach, called “liquid biopsy,” screens for specific molecules that tumors release into the bloodstream.

Recently, an NIH-funded research team reported some encouraging results using a “universal” liquid biopsy called CancerSEEK [1]. By analyzing samples of a person’s blood for eight proteins and segments of 16 genes, CancerSEEK was able to detect most cases of eight different kinds of cancer, including some highly lethal forms—such as pancreatic, ovarian, and liver—that currently lack screening tests.

In a study of 1,005 people known to have one of eight early-stage tumor types, CancerSEEK detected the cancer in blood about 70 percent of the time, which is among the best performances to date for a blood test. Importantly, when CancerSEEK was performed on 812 healthy people without cancer, the test rarely delivered a false-positive result. The test can also be run relatively cheaply, at an estimated cost of less than $500.


Cancer Metastasis: Trying to Catch the Culprits Earlier

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Scaffold

Caption: Scaffold of a cancer cell-attracting implant as seen by scanning electron microscopy.
Credit: Laboratory of Lonnie Shea

For many people diagnosed with cancer localized to the breast, prostate, or another organ, the outlook after treatment is really quite good. Still, most require follow-up testing because there remains a risk of the cancer recurring, particularly in the first five years after a tumor is removed. Catching recurrence at an early, treatable stage can be difficult because even a small number of new or “leftover” tumor cells have the ability to enter the bloodstream or lymphatics and silently spread from the original tumor site and into the lung, brain, liver, and other vital organs—the dangerous process of metastasis. What if there was a way to sound the alarm much earlier—to detect tumor cells just as they are starting to spread?

Reporting in Nature Communications [1], an NIH-funded research team from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, has developed an experimental device that appears to fit the bill. When these tiny, biodegradable scaffolds were implanted in mice with a highly metastatic form of breast cancer, the devices attracted and captured migrating cancer cells, making rapid detection possible via a special imaging system. If the results are reproduced in additional tests in animals and humans, such devices might enable earlier identification—and thereby treatment—of one of the biggest challenges in oncology today: metastatic cancer.