The future of cancer treatment — hailed as the “holy grail” of early detection — is now being put to the test.
Following a radically successful trial on cancer patients, a new blood test that promises to predict tumors more than a year before they begin to form is now being applied in hospitals across the United Kingdom.
“This is the first pan-cancer blood test,” said Ashish Tripathi, founder and CEO of Tzar Labs as well as chairman of Epigeneres Biotech, the Indian firm where the test was first developed in 2021. An updated report on their findings was published this month in the journal Stem Cells.
“We can detect [cancer] earlier than other known technologies … before the tumor has physically formed,” Tripathi continued during a new interview with author and medical advocate Deepak Chopra.
“Not only can I actually detect it at this stage — I can actually tell you which cancer and where it is forming, straight from a blood test.”
In a trial of 1,000 participants — 500 non-cancer and 500 cancer patients — researchers were able to accurately anticipate the formation of tumors across at least 25 types of cancer, including all of the most prevalent and deadly varieties, such as breast, pancreatic, lung and colorectal. Even some participants within the presumed “non-cancer” group were found to have a predisposition for future cancer diagnosis.
“We did not get even one false negative, not even one false positive,” Tripathi noted.
Hospitals in the UK have already begun to implement the new technique for further proof of concept, while researchers hope to take it to the United States soon.
Dr. Sherif Raouf, a gastrointestinal cancer specialist who will lead a trial at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, said, “Picking up cancer at the earliest stage is the holy grail of cancer medicine.”
“Normally this is not an easy process. Many patients currently undergo scans, biopsies and clinic appointments. To have one blood test to detect the presence of cancer at the earliest stage — or even before it develops — could save many lives. This could be a game-changer.”
Despite the numerous blood-based cancer screening methods that have recently been in development, Tripathi’s team’s approach differs by zeroing in on stem cells with a biomarker for cancer, as opposed to searching for full-blown tumor cells that may already be present. This allows them to determine whether cancer is on the horizon well before those cells have progressed to form a tumor.
All cells, good or bad, begin as stem cells, and those that go on to form tumors possess genetic markers that prompt them to do so.
It takes 1 billion cancer cells to form a tumor that measures just 1 cubic centimeter — a very small mass to detect even for CT scanners. But inside the body, that initial tumor is shedding cancerous cells as it grows, which enter the bloodstream and begin seeding for new tumors, or metastasizing, in various other organs.
Most of the previously developed blood tests for cancer diagnosis were made to find fully fledged tumor cells traveling through the blood. This method is prone to false negatives, according to Tripathi, because not every sample of blood will turn up those particular cells.
“Here lies the breakthrough that we’ve made: Every liquid biopsy company that you’re aware of … they were looking for these [tumor cell] fragments in peripheral blood,” Tripathi explained. Unfortunately, “very few” tumor cells are circulating in the early stages of cancer.
And by Stages 3 or 4, when cancer cells have proliferated throughout the bloodstream, enough to be detected by conventional means, it’s often already too late for treatment.
The new “prognostic” test not only sees cancer at Stages 1 or 2 but also knows whether a patient’s stem cells are fated to become cancerous well before the first stage — up to 18 months ahead. This gives doctors a huge advantage in terms of targeted treatments to prevent the formation of tumors.
It’s good news for those who have already been diagnosed with cancer too. Whereas traditional tissue biopsies may help determine whether or not a tumor is metastatic, the new blood test can say exactly which organ(s) the would-be tumor cells will target, noninvasively and well before the first tumor has amassed.
“The latest research in the US shows that as soon as you do a biopsy, you speed up the activity of the tumor,” Tripathi noted, adding to reasons why traditional biopsies are insufficient. Their blood test can be performed over and over without harm.
For this reason, this revolutionary screening can also be used to track the success of cancer treatment. Said Tripathi, “The body is willing to tell you about whether medication is working or not within 15 days … there are no diagnostic tools available that can actually measure this every 15 days because you can’t repeatedly do biopsies of a patient.”
Tripathi has high hopes for the new approach. “What we wish is a world where all of us will do this test once a year, and we will either catch cancer at Stage 1 or before — every time — when it is infinitely more curable.”