Scientists have developed a blood test that could help pair cancer patients with the most suitable therapy for their disease, then track disease progression to see if the treatment is effective. This research was published in Clinical Cancer Research (2015; doi:10.1158/1078-0432.CCR-15-0584).

Using blood tests throughout a patient’s treatment provides a running commentary of what is happening to tumors. This gives scientists the lowdown on how well a treatment is working, how the cancer is changing, and whether resistance to treatment is developing. This is the first time a blood test has been used in this way during clinical trials of targeted drugs, proving that the technique can monitor cancer simply and quickly.

The scientists and clinicians, from The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and The Royal Marsden in London, and funded by Cancer Research United Kingdom, examined almost 160 blood samples from 39 patients with different types of late-stage cancer.

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The blood test filters out tumor DNA from a patient’s blood for analysis of potential genetic faults. Based on the results, researchers can match the faults to targeted cancer treatments that would home in on cancer cells carrying these mistakes.

Biopsy samples are usually only taken at the beginning of treatment, and doctors may eventually be using out-of-date information about the genetic makeup of a patient’s disease as it changes in response to treatment. In contrast, this approach could provide real-time updates, as well as help doctors identify patients who are suitable for clinical trials of new drugs.

“Tumors and the gene faults that drive them are unique and constantly evolving. It’s crucial that we understand these changes so doctors can choose the best treatments for each patient,” said study leader Professor Johann de Bono, MD, PhD, from The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and The Royal Marsden.

“We need to do more research, but this approach could have a huge impact on how we make treatment decisions, also potentially making diagnosis and treatment quicker, cheaper, and less invasive.”

“Blood tests like these are the future of cancer treatment and this study proves that they can work in practice—helping us to diagnose, analyze, and monitor tumors more easily,” said Dr Kat Arney, Cancer Research UK’s science information manager. “Thanks to research like this we’re developing new ways to shake the genetic foundations that underpin cancer and save more lives.”