By TAMARA COHEN
PUBLISHED: 13:23 EST, 30 May 2012 | UPDATED: 01:43 EST, 31 May 2012
A simple blood test could revolutionise cancer care by showing patients whether their treatment is working, scientists say.
British researchers have devised a way of closely monitoring the progress of tumours without the need for surgery or scans.
In a world first, they used blood analysis to detect deadly mutations in 20 of 38 patients studied with breast and ovarian cancer.
A man performs a blood test on himself, which could soon be the simplest way to check on whether your cancer treatment is working
They even managed to build up a picture of how one woman’s breast cancer responded to different treatments over 16 months.
The researchers say the blood test, which could potentially save thousands of lives, could be available to patients within five years.
Currently those with cancer often need to have tissue samples surgically removed for analysis.
The new test uses sequencing – a technique to read genetic code – to look for tiny pieces of DNA that cancer tumours shed into the bloodstream and are not picked up by current screening methods.
This could alert doctors when a treatment is not working, allowing them to try alternatives, as well as potentially sparing the patient unnecessary side effects.
Blood samples were taken from women either before, during or after chemotherapy at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.
Dr Nitzan Rosenfeld, who led the study at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute, said: ‘This type of blood test has the potential to revolutionise the way we diagnose and treat cancer.
‘The great advantage is that it can be used to identify cancer mutations without surgery or a biopsy, making it safer and cheaper.’
DNA sequencing is widely used by scientists, but Dr Rosenfeld’s team found a way to home in on key genes known to be ‘cancer hot spots’ and analyse them in detail.
This is the first time entire genes have been analysed from a blood test, which enabled the researchers to examine 20,000 possible mutations in six cancer-related genes.
The DNA double helix: Dr Rosenfeld’s team found a way to home in on a few key genes known to be ‘cancer hospots’ and analyse them in detail
Using a blood sample from a 56-year-old woman with breast cancer, they were able to see in retrospect that the first type of treatment she was given had not worked.
Dr Rosenfeld said: ‘We could see in a blood test what the doctors could only see using extensive imaging. It suggests that if we had looked at a different time point, we may have been able to spot it earlier.
‘Doctors could try different types of chemotherapy or refer patients to a specific clinical trial. It broadens the scope for more personalised medicine.’ He said more tests would be needed to see which other cancers could be detected using the same process, but there was no reason why it would not work if scientists targeted the right gene.
Their study is published today in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
Co-author Dr James Brenton, an ovarian cancer clinician, said: ‘I think these results are very exciting because work from us and others really says now that blood could be an important way of measuring response and finding these mutations.
‘It offers us an opportunity to follow the disease in real time as it changes, helping us to respond and change the treatments we use.’