U.K. scientists detect cancer from stray DNA fragments in blood

Researchers in Cambridge, U.K., have made substantial progress toward accessing tiny pieces of cancer tumor DNA in the blood and using those fragments to perform a non-invasive diagnostic test, as the Los Angeles Times' "Booster Shots" blog recently explained.

Essentially, they developed a method for tagged-amplicon deep sequencing that detects a number of different mutations in genes connected to cancer, though the DNA pieces a cancer leaves in blood plasma are minute. The test could be for general use, they say, because it could detect multiple mutations at the same time. That is key, the blog notes, because such a non-invasive test, if it can identify multiple mutations, would help keep track of the cancer in an person's entire body. Tumor mutations can vary, of course. It could even lead to an inexpensive approach to personalized medicine, the blog item points out, because identifying the cancer causing genes could lead to a specific treatment that addresses that cancer best. Subsequent gene mutations detected by the test could then be addressed with the best drugs, as the cancer evolves.

The article notes that such a test has been elusive. But the research team, from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute, and elsewhere, believes their process could help track cancer as it progresses and map how well treatment is going. If they are successful, they will certainly draw the attention of investors and others seeking to bring the most effective and useful cancer diagnostic tools to market.

For their study, they were able to use it for both ovarian and breast cancer patients with a healthy amount of accuracy, according to the article. Specifically, they were able to track when plasma levels of important DNA fragments dropped, reflecting when a patient responded to treatment. Similarly, they were able to map when plasma levels for those DNA fragments started going up again, reflecting the sobering reality that that cancer treatment wasn't working any more. Details are published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

- read the the blog posting
- check out the journal abstract