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New generation of DNA tests could help detect 18 early stage cancers

US biotech scientists say the multi-cancer screening could prove ‘highly accurate,’ but other scientists cautioned that the findings are still ‘very preliminary’

Scientists at the US biotech firm Novelna have designed a test that analyses proteins in the blood and can pick up 18 early stage cancers in all main organs of the human body.

The team said their test outperformed others relying on tumour DNA in the blood and had ‘a sensitivity much greater’ than the Galleri test being trialled on the NHS in the UK. The Galleri test was reported to accurately detect cancer in 51.5% people already diagnosed with cancer, while results suggest the new DNA test could identify 93% of stage one cancers in men and 84% in women.

‘This finding is the foundation for a multi-cancer screening test for the early detection of 18 solid tumours that cover all major human organs of origin for such cancers at the earliest stage of their development with high accuracy,’ said the team, writing in the BMJ Oncology Journal.

‘These findings pave the way for a cost-effective, highly accurate, multi-cancer screening test that can be implemented on a population-wide scale,’ they said.

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Blood plasma samples were collected from 440 people diagnosed with 18 different types of cancer, and from 44 healthy blood donors. By looking at proteins in blood plasma, the experts were able to differentiate cancer samples from normal ones, and even distinguish between different types of cancers. They also found evidence that cancer protein signals were likely to be sex specific.

While this study is promising for the early detection of cancer, which accounts for one in six deaths worldwide, other scientists have urged caution.

‘The clinical utility of this technology, whether for routine symptomatic patient assessment or screening, is a very long way from being proven. Rigorous clinical evaluation is needed,’ said Professor Richard Sullivan, director at the Institute of Cancer Policy at King’s College London.

‘The results of this study are very preliminary, and more research will be needed to know whether this has any applicability in the real world of cancer care,’ he said.

The scientists at Novelna themselves said their relatively small sample size meant further studies were needed in bigger groups of people, one of the main limitations cited by experts as well.

‘The number of samples used in the study is very small and so the results will not be statistically robust. Moreover, the same samples that were used to develop the test were used to evaluate its accuracy,’ said Paul Pharoah, professor of cancer epidemiology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

‘The test must be evaluated in completely independent samples before it is possible to say anything definitive about how accurate it is,’ he said.