Scientists in the United Kingdom have designed an inexpensive blood test that can detect cancer with high accuracy in people with nonspecific symptoms such as fatigue and weight loss.
Developers from the University of Oxford said the test, which involves an emerging form of cancer detection, could be ordered by primary care doctors and has the potential to expedite the diagnosis process.
In a study published in the journal Clinical Cancer Research, Oxford researchers analyzed samples from 300 patients with nonspecific but concerning symptoms of cancer, including fatigue and rapid weight loss, and assessed whether the test could distinguish patients with a range of solid tumors from those without cancer.
The test was accurate in 19 out of every 20 patients with cancer, and also successfully identified if the cancer had metastasized, or spread, with 94 percent accuracy.
Fay Probert, a biochemist at Oxford who led the research, said that once it is validated, the test will allow for “accurate, timely and cost-effective” triaging of patients with suspected cancer.
Many currently available blood-based cancer tests work by detecting genetic material from tumors that might be present in the blood. But the test from the Oxford scientists looks for chemicals known as metabolites produced by tumors, which serve as biomarkers for cancer.
The hypothesis that cancer cell metabolism is distinct from normal cells was first raised by German Nobel laureate Otto Warburg in the 1920s, though scientists are only now starting to understand how metabolites produced by tumors can be used as biomarkers to accurately detect cancer.
James Larkin, an Oxford oncologist who worked on the new study, said that nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, metabolomics can accurately detect the presence of cancer cells because scientists now have a handle on their “unique metabolomic fingerprints”.
Larkin has previously performed research into tracking the progress of multiple sclerosis using NMR metabolomics, and said that the technology can successfully identify when the degenerative disease is approaching its latter stages, even before trained clinicians could tell.
“It is very exciting that the same technology is now showing promise in other diseases, like cancer,” he said.
The next step is to assess the accuracy of the test in a larger study involving thousands of individuals, after which the test may be validated by regulatory agencies for clinical use.