A simple blood test that can identify cancer before tumours appear has been developed by scientists at Swansea University – a breakthrough that could potentially save thousands of lives.
“The test can be likened to a ‘cancer smoke detector’,” said Professor Gareth Jenkins, who led the research, adding that the disease might be detectable in 80 per cent of cancer patients.
“We are looking for the ‘scent’ of the cancer, which is present in the circulating blood,” he said.
Catching tumour early
Discovering cancer early is key to successful treatment. If a tumour is caught in a single part of the body, there is a much better chance that it can be removed surgically. But if it has spread to other organs, the patient is more likely to die.
The researchers studied 300 healthy people, patients with signs of pre-cancer and patients with oesophageal cancer.
The test detects the numbers of abnormal or “mutant” red blood cells in a small blood sample. “The number of these mutated red blood cells increases in cancer patients,” Professor Jenkins said.
Healthy volunteers have about six abnormal cells per million red blood cells whereas individuals who are “predisposed” to develop cancer have around four times as many. Those already with tumours have at least seven-fold more.
Professor Jenkins said: “You can separate out patients who are healthy, non-cancer patients from patients who have cancer based on the level of these mutated blood cells.”
Dr Áine McCarthy, Cancer Research UK’s senior science information officer, said finding new ways to detect cancer was “vital to improve survival”.