New blood test can detect lung cancer

French researchers discover way to check for tumour cells several years before they become visible on scanners

3 November 2014
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FRENCH cancer researchers say they have discovered a way to detect lung cancer through a simple blood test.

The team, lead by Prof Paul Hofman at Nice CHU and the Inserm research centre at Nice Sophia-Antipolis university, say the “world first” test highlights circulating tumour cells years before a tumour becomes visible using conventional imaging techniques.

They said that the migration of circulating tumour cells into the blood stream is an early event that occurs during carcinogenesis and is a type of “sentinel” that cancer is present.

Prof Hofman’s team published their results in the US open access peer-reviewed scientific journal Plos One as Cancer Research UK was announcing that it had found a drug combination that can trigger the self-destruct process in lung cancer cells - paving the way for new treatments.

The French researchers had done tests on 245 patients without cancer, including 168 heavy-smokers with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a risk factor for lung cancer, and 77 subjects without COPD, including 42 control smokers and 35 non-smoking healthy individuals.

They were able to identify the circulating tumour cells in five out of the 168 COPD patients. All developed cancer and were able to have prompt surgery – and a follow-up CT-scan 12 months after surgery showed no trace of the tumour.

Prof Hofman said they gained about four years on the cancer, which was usually past the stage of being operable by the time it was spotted in conventional imagery. They now plan larger-scale tests.

The UK researchers, led by Prof Henning Walczak at the UCL Cancer Institute in London, have discovered a way to switch on the self-destruct mechanism that is used by healthy cells, but is turned off in cancer cells as they form invasive tumours.

Prof Walczak said: “Igniting the fuse that causes lung cancer cells to self-destruct could pave the way to a completely new treatment approach – and leave healthy cells unharmed.

“The next step of our work will see how this approach works in other cancer types, and we hope it could ultimately lead to testing this technique in trials to see if it can help patients.”
Cancer cells self-destructing graphic: Cancer Research UK

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