The UK reveals breakthrough Cancer developments amidst COVID-19

A new blood test that can detect up to 50 different types of cancer is due to be piloted across England next year. The trial is being conducted on 165,000 patients by the NHS in a bid to increase the rates of early-stage diagnosis.

The Galleri blood test that looks for molecular changes was developed by US company GRAIL. Research on patients has already found that the test can identify even the hardest cancers to diagnose early. These include cancers in the head and neck and ovarian, pancreatic, oesophageal and some blood cancers. 

With 1 in 2 people likely to get cancer, it is projected to soon become the world’s leading cause of death. Lord David Prior, Chairman of NHS England stated: “every year, nearly 200,000 people in the UK die from cancer. Many of these people are diagnosed too late for treatment to be effective”. A patient that is diagnosed while their cancer is at stage one has a five to ten times higher chance of surviving, compared to those found at stage four. This test really does have the potential to save many lives and could help thousands more get successful and less expensive treatment.  

If the NHS programme shows the test to be effective, it should become routinely available for people without symptoms. The results of these studies are expected by 2023, and if the outcomes are positive the studies will be expanded to involve about one million participants around 2024 and 2025.

Cancer cells are known to be very unstable and quite often break, spilling their DNA in the blood. The Galleri blood test looks to detect the characteristics of this DNA which is different from that of any other cell. 

As positive as this all seems, we do not yet have proof that the test works on real-world, healthy people with no symptoms or if it is sensitive enough to pick up really early cancers. Dr David Crosby, head of Early Detection research at Cancer Research UK is calling on the government to support the NHS in making this early detection become a reality. He says, “we need to invest in the NHS and a health system which is ready to accommodate these new tests and change the way we think about the disease”.  So far, the NHS are trained to treat symptomatic disease, so this is going to change their whole model. The Government needs to invest in staff and equipment to support the development and innovation of this new test.

This test hopes to meet the NHS Long Term Plan goal of increasing the proportion of cancers caught early, which can be the key to reducing cancer mortality. 

Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock said: “We are building a world-leading diagnostics industry in the UK – not just for coronavirus but for other diseases too. This exciting and ground-breaking new blood test from GRAIL will give us another tool to give more people the very best chance of survival, demonstrating how the UK continues to lead the way in using the latest innovative treatments to help patients.”

This comes not long after Cancer Research UK awarded a £1 million grant to doctors and scientists at The Christie NHS Foundation and Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute. The simple blood test can see if treatments are working in cancer patients.  At the moment, the typical cancer patient would have to undergo CT scans to establish how effective treatment is, and this is the alternative that scientists have been looking for.  

The discovery comes after two decades of research by a team at The Christie, led by Professor Gordon Jayson and Professor Caroline Dive. The simple blood test looks to identify which patients will benefit from anti-blood vessel drugs by examining if a protein in the blood, Tie2, has increased or decreased. If reduced, it will prove the anti-blood vessel drugs are starving tumours of blood and nutrients. If Tie2 levels were to return to their original state, the medical team will be able to see the treatment is not working for that particular individual.  

The test is currently in its second phase for the VALIDATE programme, which is the final step before the blood test will be adopted by the NHS. However, this will be several years before it becomes a routine measure in cancer patients.

Grace Mortley

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