Liquid biopsies have been all the rage at this year’s American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Chicago.
A liquid biopsy might sound more complicated than it actually is: it is essentially a simple blood test which can be used to help doctors detect cancers at an early stage.
One of the big stories from ASCO 2018 was a test which has been able to detect ten types of cancer.
It works by detecting tiny bits of dead cancer cells in a blood sample and has been labelled as "potentially the holy grail of cancer research".
The test had particularly good results in detecting ovarian and pancreatic cancers, although the number of patients with tumours was small.
“This is potentially the holy grail of cancer research, to find cancers that are currently hard to cure at an earlier stage when they are easier to cure,” said Dr Eric Klein, lead author of the research from Cleveland Clinic’s Taussig Cancer Institute. “We hope this test could save many lives.”
Short of a cure for cancer altogether, scientists think this could be the best way to improve survival rates: seeking out tumours earlier when they are easier to treat.
ANGLE trying something similar
It is currently taking its Parsortix liquid biopsy system through the clinic and recently reported that it is making “encouraging progress” with the trials.
Parsortix is slightly different to the much-hyped test unveiled at ACSO: rather than testing for fragments of dead cancer cells, it detects and captures circulating tumour cells (CTCs).
CTCs provide the tell-tale signs of cancer and their capture can allow doctors to more accurately assess treatment options.
Although ANGLE boss Andrew Newland has welcomed the interest generated by the new liquid biopsy, he, perhaps unsurprisingly, thinks Parsortix is a few steps ahead, and not just in terms of timescale.
He points out that the purpose of a test is not just to spot those with cancer, but also to correctly identify those who don’t have the disease.
Parsortix ‘a more complete test’
“This is much more challenging than discriminating known healthy from known cancer. The Cleveland Clinic study has done no work in this area and this is recognised in the comment that the test is five to ten years away from being available.”
Newland reckons false negatives – when someone without cancer is told that they do – could be an issue with the Cleveland Clinic test because of how it works.
Previous studies have shown that fragments of dead cancer cells (what the Cleveland test looks for) are present in around a quarter of people over 65 who do not have cancer.
CTCs, on the other hand, “give a complete picture”, Newland says, because they can only be found in people with cancer.
ANGLE shares were down 1.5% to 54.2p on Monday afternoon.