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Blood test offers another way to diagnose cancer, scientists reveal

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Scientists in the United Kingdom have developed a low-cost blood test that can diagnose cancer with high accuracy in patients who have non-specific symptoms including fatigue and weight loss.

According to the test’s creators at the University of Oxford, the test, which incorporates a new kind of cancer detection, might be ordered by primary care physicians and has the potential to speed up the diagnostic process.

The Oxford researchers examined samples from 300 patients with non-specific but concerning cancer symptoms, such as fatigue and rapid weight loss, in a study published in the journal Clinical Cancer Research, to see if the test could distinguish patients with a variety of solid tumors from those without cancer.

The test was accurate in 19 of every 20 cancer patients and accurately diagnosed if the disease had metastasized, or spread, with a 94 percent accuracy.

Fay Propert, a biochemist at the University of Oxford who led the study, stated that once validated, the test will allow for “accurate, fast, and cost-effective” triaging of patients with probable cancer.

“The goal is to produce a test for cancer that any GP (general practitioner) can request,” said Propert. “This work describes a new way of identifying cancer.”

Many blood-based cancer diagnostics now available function by identifying genetic material from tumors that may be present in the blood. The Oxford researchers’ test instead looks for molecules known as metabolites, which are created by tumors and act as indicators for cancer.

The notion that cancer cell metabolism differs from that of normal cells was initially advanced in the 1920s by German Nobel Laureate Otto Warburg, but scientists are only now beginning to comprehend how metabolites generated by tumors might be utilized as biomarkers to reliably diagnose cancer.

The test uses a technology known as nuclear magnetic resonance metabolomics, or NMR metabolomics, which employs magnetic fields and radio waves to profile compounds in the blood and other fluids such as urine.

Early versions of the technology were developed more than 40 years ago, but its promise in cancer detection has yet to be fully exploited, with research just commencing in earnest in the last decade.

According to James Larkin, an oncologist at the University of Oxford who collaborated on the new study, NMR metabolomics may correctly detect the existence of cancer cells since scientists now have a hold on their “unique metabolomic fingerprints.”

Larkin has already conducted research on tracking the progression of multiple sclerosis using NMR metabolomics and claims that the method can accurately determine when the degenerative illness is entering its last stages, even before experienced physicians can.

“It is very exciting that the same technology is now showing promise in other diseases, like cancer,” he said.

The next step will be to assess the accuracy of the test in a larger study involving thousands of individuals, after which it may be validated by regulatory agencies for clinical use.

The full paper, ‘Metabolomic Biomarkers in Blood Samples Identify Cancers in a Mixed Population of Patients with Nonspecific Symptoms’, can be read in Clinical Cancer Research.

This research was funded by Cancer Research UK, the Oxford Centre for Early Cancer Detection (OxCODE), the EPSRC Cancer Imaging Centre in Oxford, the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Community Healthcare Medtech and In-Vitro Diagnostics Co-operative, and the OxfordWellcome Institutional Strategic Support Fund.

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