‘No smoke without fire’ is the old adage often used to describe something suspicious, or an initial finding that points to something else much bigger and more significant. This is the premise behind a new blood based test being developed by Cancer Research Wales scientists at Swansea University for the early diagnosis of oesophageal cancer.
The new test works by detecting mutated proteins (the smoke) expressed on the outside of red blood cells, which betray the presence of a cancer (the fire) lurking somewhere in the body. These cells can often appear before patients present in the clinic with cancer-related symptoms. This means that the test has great potential as a relatively inexpensive blood based diagnostic tool for detecting early cancers in both the primary and secondary care settings. This is particularly striking, given that only 2-3 routine tests (most notably PSA for prostate cancer and CA125 for ovarian cancer) are currently used for the diagnosis of cancer in primary practice, a picture that hasn’t changed in the last 25 years.
This exciting research is very welcomed, especially given that late cancer diagnosis is a major factor why overall cancer survival rates in Wales are poor compared to other countries with similar healthcare systems. Furthermore, those cancer types for which survival rates have remained static over the last 20 years – such as oesophageal, lung and pancreatic cancer – are often diagnosed at a late stage, when they are difficult to treat, manage and cure.
The Swansea University team: CRW PhD student Rachel Lawrence, Professor Gareth Jenkins and Dr Hassan Haboubi
The team at Swansea – Professor Gareth Jenkins, Dr Hassan Haboubi; a practicing gastroentrologist, and Cancer Research Wales PhD student; Rachel Lawrence – have so far validated the test using small blood samples taken from 300 individuals. Even at this early stage of development, the scientists have been able to discriminate between healthy people and those with oesophageal cancer.
This work is very timely, as access to new, more accurate and speedy tests for early cancer diagnosis is urgently needed by both GPs and oncologists alike. Currently, endoscopic procedures used in the investigation of suspected oesophageal cancer are costly, invasive and take time.
This vital piece of research was unveiled on Tuesday at the British Science Festival, this year being hosted by Swansea University. Professor Jenkins gave a very eloquent and informative talk on the science behind the test and potential applications it may have moving foward. He was given a helping hand by his 9 year old daughter Milly Jenkins, who made several wonderful models of mutated red blood cells out of bean bags to brilliantly explain the concept behind this pioneering test. We at CRW believe that Milly is a naturally gifted science communicator.
As a funder of this work, Cancer Research Wales very much looks foward to the blood test being further studied in larger cohorts of people and for other cancer types, as well as groups considered to be at high risk of developing cancer. This may take another 3-5 years of research and validation, after which the true potential of this test will be realised, so please stay with us on this exciting journey.
This is local research that could have far-reaching benefits for people everywhere. For that, we would like to give a big thank you to the people of Wales for making this work possible.