Painless cancer detection could become routine thanks to ‘liquid biopsies’ – Jessica Glenza Sunday 4 June 2017 19.01 EDT

Biopsies are seen as the best way of detecting the illness – but they have traditionally often required invasive techniques

Researchers hope ‘liquid biopsy’ technology can offer a new, painless way to detect cancer.
Researchers hope ‘liquid biopsy’ technology can offer a new, painless way to detect cancer. Photograph: Ed Reschke/Getty Images

Researchers are developing tests that could make cancer detection so painless that it becomes part of routine check-ups, experts said, as new developments in such “liquid biopsy” technology were presented at the world’s largest cancer conference in Chicago this weekend.

Collecting tumor tissue through biopsies is considered the gold standard for diagnosing and treating cancer. However, necessary surgery is often invasive and sometimes unsuccessful.

That has fueled interest in technology that uses blood samples to examine bits of DNA shed into the bloodstream by tumors. The hope, researchers say, is to save patients the pain of surgery, monitor tumor growth to tailor treatment, and ultimately to save lives.

“It’s fair to say that if you could detect all cancers while they are still localized, you could diminish cancer deaths by 90%,” said Dr Bert Vogelstein, a professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who co-authored a study presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) in Chicago.

“But that’s a theoretical figure. The available data suggests that it’s going to take quite a while, and there are a lot of obstacles to overcome.”

Like all cells, cancerous cells shed DNA as they die. Tests in development examine these bits of DNA in the bloodstream, finding mutations in already diagnosed cancers or, experts hope, diagnosing cancer early.

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