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Cancer 'holy grail' set to cut deaths

Special report: the future of the NHS

Anthony Browne, health editor
Sunday November 5, 2000

Thousands of lives a year could be saved by a revolutionary new test that can detect most common forms of cancer before there are even any symptoms.

The cheap test, based on a simple blood sample, can find cancers as soon as they start forming and has been described as the 'holy grail' of cancer diagnosis.

Most cancers have no early symptoms, and are only diagnosed after it is too late to treat them effectively. The new DR-70 test offering early detection makes successful treatment far more likely.

It could save the lives of hundreds of sick people who die unnecessarily each year because doctors take so long to diagnose a cancer that it becomes untreatable by the time it is identified. The DR-70 test could immediately show which cases are cancer rather than something less serious.

Dr Mary Berrington of the Cancer Research Campaign, said: 'This test is potentially exciting. It would be enormously useful. It's the holy grail of cancer diagnostics'.

The test, which costs around £50, can tell whether someone has any one of 13 different cancers, including those of the lungs, breast, stomach, ovaries and cervix.

Regular screenings could dramatically cut the death rates of most forms. 'Once cancers show clinical symptoms, it's often too late. The earlier we get them the better - the test could have a very big effect,' said Berrington.

The invention, developed by the Californian firm AMDL, has been approved for sale in Canada, and restricted sales began in the US last May, pending approval from the Food and Drug Administration. It is also being used for widespread screening in Hong Kong.

Independent clinical trials have been conducted in China, Chile and Taiwan. The results, published in the respected medical publication, the Journal of Immunoassay showed that the test was more than 90 per cent accurate for cancers of the stomach and lung, and slightly less reliable for breast and rectum tumours.

The study's authors said DR-70 was 'capable of detecting cancers with high degree of specificity and sensitivity'.

The Derby biotechnology firm Surescreen Diagnostics, which has the rights to sell the test in the UK, plans to seek Government approval to launch it in this country.

'It would make some major strides forward in screening. We would like to have the go-ahead to sell the product, first through private clinics,' said Jim Campbell, Surescreen's principal scientific officer.

The test identifies the antibodies produced by the immune system when a tumour starts growing. 'As soon as the cancer is formed, and you produce the antibodies to fight it, you can detect it,' said Campbell. The test requires just 2cc of blood and takes as little as two hours to perform.

The test is especially attractive because it is non-invasive and much less daunting than others, such as mammograms for breast cancer. It also tests for a wide range of cancers, and so could replace individual tests for each type.

However, the test does have some drawbacks. It may miss some cancers. It also only shows that the patient has cancer, not which type it is. If the result is positive, then further tests must be done to identify where the cancer is and what form it has. There is also the danger that the test may produce false positive results, raising the false alarm that someone has cancer.

Regular screening for much of the population would be expensive for the NHS, and raise the cost of cancer treatment because more patients would need it for longer. The NHS now only screens for breast and cervical cancer, although the Department of Health is considering introducing a national screening programme for prostate cancer.

Gary Dreher, chief executive of AMDL, claimed that the test should be used for annual screening. 'Since early diagnosis has many advantages and cancers in their early stages don't show any symptoms, it's just common sense to spend $100-or-so every year or two after you are 30 or 35 to learn whether you have cancer,' he said.

anthony.browne@observer.co.uk


 

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