Kathryn E. Vinson, MS, CCRC
Going into the New Year, I thought we could all use some amazing news. What if I were to tell you that there may soon be a blood test that can detect cancer at its earliest stages? We are talking some of the big scary ones too – lung, pancreatic, colorectal, breast, leukemia, and others. You’d probably say – Kathryn, you’re crazy. Well, prepare to be blown away.
Recently, researchers supported by the University of Toronto, the Canadian Institutes of Health, the Canadian Cancer Society, the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, and the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation (it takes a lot to support ground breaking stuff like this!) have developed a way to find cancer in its earliest stages with a simple blood draw.
When we talk about the types of cancers I listed above, we know that these are some of the cancers with the highest mortality rates. So, early detection is key – but a lot of these diseases don’t show symptoms until they have reached advanced stages, making early detection difficult.
Doctors have been searching for early detection methods for years, but sadly, cancers have had to be more advanced before certain markers would show up in blood samples in adequate quantities to be found – not only markers made by our own immune systems in response to the cancer, but markers produced by the cancer itself.
This is where it gets super sciency. Researchers led by Dr. Daniel De Carvalho have combined machine learning with medical technology to detect changes in what are called epigenetic profiles to make early diagnoses of cancer. If that blew up your brain, let’s take it a step at a time.
Epigentic changes are simply changes in the way genes are expressed – not changes to the genes themselves – often produced by the addition of a methyl group to the gene sequence, called methylation. So rather than looking for the actual mutations in DNA sequences that are present in cancer, which can’t always be found early, researchers are looking for these epigenetic changes in the ways genes are expressed. These changes are specific to cancer and tissue type, giving doctors the ability to differentiate types found by the test, rather than just a positive or negative. By studying and classifying these changes with samples from 300 real-life patients, researchers were able to train computers to detect and classify these changes. This is the machine learning that I was talking about earlier.
In Dr. De Carvalho’s own words, “We are very excited at this stage. A major problem in cancer is how to detect it early. It has been a ‘needle in the haystack’ problem of how to find that one-in-a-billion cancer-specific mutation in the blood, especially at earlier stages, where the amount of tumour DNA in the blood is minimal.”
Another promising study conducted at Lund University in Sweden is using a different pathway to detect pancreatic cancer at stages I and II. In this study, researchers in Sweden have developed a blood test that works by detecting antibodies that are present in pancreatic cancer patients. With this test, 29 different markers are utilized that are detecting stage I and II pancreatic cancer with an accuracy of 96%!
For both of these types of tests, larger scale studies must be undertaken before these “hit the market” so to speak, but this is some of the best news I have heard in a long time.
As always, much love, many prayers, and abundant blessings to all of the warriors out there!