Why is the UK lagging behind the rest of Europe in cancer survival?
Having to wait for tests, test results, diagnosis and then treatment can be a gruelling experience with the big C word hovering over your head. NHS guidelines are in place to limit diagnosis time but as the Guardian reports, hospitals often break them due to high patient numbers. Cancer survival rates are thankfully rising but the UK has been reported as falling behind the rest of Europe. Why? The main reason cited is slow diagnosis; with the Telegraph stating one in five cancers in this country are not spotted until the patient ends up in A&E.
The best diagnostics we have now are specialised scanners, such as MRI, which are expensive and only found at large hospitals. This bottlenecks patients, delaying diagnosis, and creating postcode variation.
The potential of a simple blood test to save lives
The dream is to find cancers when they’re at their early and most importantly, curable stage. Labs around the world are competing to find a blood test or ‘liquid biopsy’ which can do this, by screening a sample of the patient’s blood. All the DNA in the blood sample is sequenced to find specific shed DNA fragments which are expelled from cancerous cells. You need DNA sequencing machines to do this, but that technology is advancing at an incredible rate, with price and time reducing hugely ever year. A DNA sequencer no bigger than a mobile phone impressed experts earlier this year.
Some studies are being conducted as a race between liquid biopsy and traditional diagnostic tools, such as ultrasound. Catch the cancer. Ready. Steady. Go. Another study found tumour DNA in blood samples of over 80% of those with advanced cancers and nearly 50% with localised and early stage cancers. Research on prostate, lung and bowel cancer tests are under way at the Royal Marsden and a similar blood test has already been reported as a breakthrough for predicting relapses in breast cancer.
To bring home the importance of this diagnostic technology, the CEO of Illumina (a top DNA sequencing firm) believes this technology will become the “stethoscope for the next 200 years.” A researcher called Dennis Lo, who is close to perfecting the screen for nasopharyngeal cancer, believes once the test has been developed for common cancers, it will be rolled out to mainstream. Victor Velculescu, another pioneer thinks liquid biopsies will “solve early detection” which is key to improving survival rates here in Britain.
I personally, don’t think this technology can come soon enough, just like cancer patients think, waiting for their diagnosis.
-Written by Becky W.