Researchers in the United States and United Kingdom developed the new test, and they now report their findings in the journal Annals of Oncology.
There is an urgent need for better diagnostic tools for cancer. All too often, healthcare professionals can only make a diagnosis after symptoms have developed — at which point it may be too late for curative treatment.
However, these tests are typically only available to a subset of the population (those at highest risk), are limited to a small number of cancers, and have variable rates of compliance. These methods can also be invasive or uncomfortable, which may discourage attendance.
Now, researchers have developed a simple blood test that can detect over 50 different types of cancer, in many cases before any clinical signs or symptoms develop, from just a single draw of blood.
Biology meets machine learning
The test works using a type of DNA released by tumor cells. This sheds into the blood, where it is known as cell-free DNA (cfDNA). It can be challenging to identify tumor-specific cfDNA, however, because many other cells also release DNA into the blood.
This test detects DNA that is specifically from cancer cells using changes to the DNA — namely, the addition of a chemical called a methyl group, which is associated with tumor growth.
After isolating cfDNA from the blood sample and sequencing it to find the methylated parts, healthcare professionals can feed the results into a computer that can recognize DNA from cancer and noncancer cells.
The computer can then predict whether or not a person has cancer, and even what type it might be.