Words by Maisie Levitt, Online News Editor

University of Oxford scientists have developed a new blood test that may detect cancer and its spread early on. With a success rate of 95%, the test could detect cancer in people with non-specific symptoms such as weight-loss and fatigue.

By detecting the early onset of cancer, the response to treatment would be increased due to early access. The test would also reduce the time between noticing early symptoms and an official diagnosis, leading to a higher chance of survival. This would increase survival rates amongst patients with non-specific symptoms the most, as they are those who are often diagnosed the latest.

While there is currently a “two-week wait path” for patients with organ-specific symptoms, there is no clear option for those with non-specific symptoms. This minimally invasive and inexpensive test could reduce wait times by several weeks, increasing the chances of treatment and survival significantly.

The scientific team tested 300 samples from patients who were recruited via the Oxfordshire Suspected Cancer (SCAN) pathway. All experienced non-specific cancer symptoms, like fatigue and unexplained weight loss. Out of the 20 patients who had cancerous tumours, the blood work test identified 19, a 95% accuracy rate.

The test could also recognise if the patient was suffering from a localised cancer or a spreading one with a 94% accuracy. This is the first to be able to do so without identifying the type of tumour beforehand.

The study was published in the Clinical Cancer Research journal and was lead by Dr James Larkin, who said that “We have already demonstrated that this technology can successfully identify if patients with multiple sclerosis are progressing to the later stages of disease, even before trained clinicians could tell. It is very exciting that the same technology is now showing promise in other diseases, like cancer”.

While other tests that search for biomarkers associated with cancer usually focus on DNA mutations, elevated protein levels, white blood cell damage and others, this test uses a technology named nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), which profiles blood molecules called metabolites. NMR uses magnetic fields and radio waves. It would enable professionals to observe a cancer, as well as to see if the cancer has spread, as the metabolites in people with localised or spreading cancer each look different to each other while still differing to those of healthy people.

Dr James Larkin told The Guardian “The problem we’ve had in the past is that if they do have cancer, that cancer is growing all the time, and when they come back the cancers are often quite advanced…We’re hoping to capture these patients when they come to the GP, to give them an immediate referral option”. 

The next step is further confirmation of the test’s accuracy. It must be confirmed in up to 3,000 cancer patients who have non-specific symptoms. Dr Larkin hopes for this to have happened by 2024, saying that being able to diagnose a patient with a tumour “provides a strong incentive” to search for the cancer and treat it as fast as possible, all resulting from a test that is efficient, accurate and cost effective to the patient and to the health system.

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