New Blood Test for Cancer
Most of you likely heard the news yesterday about a partnership announced between MGH and Johnson and Johnson to explore the technology of a tiny chip that may be able to identify a single cancer cell from a blood test. This was on the front page of the Boston Globe, and the quote I will be using comes from NPR. That is to say, it was all over the news.
It was also a hot topic of conversation in my office yesterday, both in a group for women with advanced breast cancer and with several individual patients. The summary statements seem to be that this is exciting science and technology, that it suggests hopeful progress in the future both for early detection and for monitoring someone with known cancer--and that it is years away from being clinically useful. Not to be a total downer, but I will remind you here of other news headlines that turned out to be disappointments. A big one was related to angiogenesis (the discovery that cancer cells need blood vessels and the attempts to find treatments that destroy those blood vessels) and the loud announcements from people who should have known better that cancer was on the verge of being cured. As we have sadly learned time and time again, cancer is a very complicated problem. There is not going to be a single solution or cure. Instead, there will be slow and steady progress and better understanding and building science and clinical care together to prolong life.
Here is a quote from NPR and then a link to read their excellent story:
Imagine doctors being able to find common cancers just by testing a little bit of blood. Sure would beat getting poked with a sharp needle, right?
Well today Johnson & Johnson and Massachusetts General Hospital announced a $30 million investment by the company in a partnership that aims to develop technology that could detect even a few cancers cells floating in a person's blood.
Mass General's Dr. Daniel Haber, one of the test's inventors,told the Associated Press, "This is like a liquid biopsy." The experimental test uses a plastic chip whose microscopic inner surfaces are covered in antibodies to grab cancer cells from the blood. Those cells can be analyzed in detail as well as counted.
Some early research has shown the approach has promise. It could, if all goes well, help doctors detect cancer and also to tailor treatment. But developing cool technology is one thing — making sure that it makes a difference in patient care is another.
The National Cancer Institute put together a lucid explanation ofhow the chips work, and also a cautionary note after a 2009 conference on the subject. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center's Dr. Howard Scher notes in the NCI piece that plucking the cancer cells from blood is just the start. Researchers have to show that the test results have prognostic value.