NCI develops viral antibody blood test to boost liver cancer screening

Red blood cells
The National Cancer Institute showed its test was able to predict which patients would develop hepatocellular carcinoma up to 10 years before their diagnosis. (Pixabay)

Researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) have developed a blood test that could be used to help identify people with a higher risk of liver cancer based on their previous exposures to particular viruses. 

This test helps paint a picture of the environment where cancer cells are more likely to grow rather than searching for evidence of the various, evolving tumor cells themselves. The test also aims to identify people with a potential for developing hepatocellular carcinoma, or HCC, from those with chronic liver diseases.

Infections like hepatitis B or C, or organ damage such as cirrhosis, can increase a person’s chances of developing HCC, but not everyone does. People with these risk factors are recommended to be screened every six months with a liver ultrasound or other blood tests; however, most are still diagnosed in the advanced stages of the disease. 

The new test—developed and evaluated alongside researchers from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases as well as several academic centers—aims to provide a better early surveillance approach. 

“We need a better way to identify people who have the highest risk for HCC and who should get screened more frequently,” said Xin Wei Wang, co-leader of the liver cancer program at the NCI’s Center for Cancer Research and head of a study that published its results this week in the journal Cell.

Of about 900 participants in the study, 150 had been diagnosed with HCC. In all, researchers scanned blood samples for antibodies left behind by previous viral infections. They found a specific exposure signature—containing links to 61 different viruses, including those not associated with any tumors—that accurately screened people with cancer from healthy volunteers or those with chronic liver diseases.

That signature was then used to test blood samples from 173 people with chronic disease in a separate, long-term study, including 44 with eventual liver cancer. The test showed it was able to predict which patients would develop HCC up to 10 years before their diagnosis. 

NCI researchers are currently testing the viral exposure signature in prostate cancer, while others may apply the approach to a screening study for ovarian, esophageal, liver and breast cancers in Africa, the institute said.