Early detection is the best tool to fight cancer, but biopsies can be painful and inconclusive. New research shows a simple blood test can detect cancers by blasting white blood cells with UV and seeing how they respond. Painless, universal cancer detection could be a drop of blood away.
Researchers at England's University of Bradford tested patients with melanoma, colon cancer, and lung cancer, alongside patients with non-cancer illnesses and healthy control patients. They found that the DNA in cancer patients' white blood cells is easily damaged by long-wave Ultraviolet A waves. White blood cells from cancer-free patients were not nearly as susceptible, while cells from patients with pre-cancerous conditions showed an intermediate response. The team says normal illnesses like cold or flu shouldn't lead to false-positive test results.
Dr. Diana Anderson, who led the research, explained to the BBC why she went down this investigative path:
White blood cells are part of the body's natural defense system. We know that they are under stress when they are fighting cancer or other diseases, so I wondered whether anything measurable could be seen if we put them under further stress with UVA light.
Doctors and medical researchers have long sought an easy, non-invasive test that could detect cancer early, no matter where in the body it arises. Currently, a doctor's best way of diagnosing cancer is by biopsy, where a tissue sample is removed from the suspected cancerous area and tested in the lab.
Biopsies take time, and they're not always 100 percent accurate, but more importantly, a doctor will only perform a biopsy if there's reason to suspect cancer is present. Many cancers develop without symptoms over a long period of time, only becoming apparent once they've already taken hold. By the time a doctor has reason to perform a biopsy, cancer may have already spread.
So a simple test that can be performed as part of a routine exam, and can detect a wide variety of cancers, is the answer researchers have been searching for. This could be that test, but determining that will require much further testing: the initial findings, published this week in The FASEB Journal, only observed 208 patients, 94 of whom were healthy controls.
"These are early results completed on three different types of cancer and we accept that more research needs to be done," Dr. Anderson told the BBC. "But these results so far are remarkable. [The FASEB Journal via BBC]
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