The NHS is currently testing a blood test for people over the age of 50 that has the potential to prevent one in ten cancer deaths in the country.
The Health Service is conducting the first-ever clinical trial of the test, which could detect over 50 different types of cancer before the patients experience any symptoms.
Despite the lack of data, researchers are confident in its “enormous” potential. They estimate that 167,000 people in the UK die from cancer each year, or nearly 460 each day, and that the ‘Holy Grail’ test could prevent about 10% of those deaths through the use of predictive modeling.
About 16,000 lives per year could be spared thanks to the discovery.
Hundreds of the 140,000 volunteers in the study have already been advised to undergo a scan or colonoscopy as a result of the results. Roughly half of those referred may actually have cancer.
If the test goes well in the trial, it could be implemented in all 50 states by 2024 at the latest.
Assuming that one in a hundred people who take the test are positive, as investigators anticipate, this would mean that approximately 130,000 more people without symptoms would receive cancer screening referrals annually if the test were made available across the UK and offered to around 18 million adults aged 50 to 79.
The cancer test, developed by the American firm Grail, has been hailed by British scientists as having the potential to mark a “turning point” in the National Health Service’s approach to cancer treatment.
According to data from the year up to February, there are nearly three million annual urgent cancer referrals. The test would increase referrals by around 5 percent.
The study authors note that many of these referrals would occur eventually regardless.
More than 10,000 people are still waiting for treatment three months after being referred for suspected cancer, according to data that leaked this month as the NHS struggles with a post-Covid backlog. However, it is hoped that things will be different by the time the test could be implemented.
King’s College London Professor Peter Sasieni, one of the trial’s three lead investigators, said, “The potential of this blood test to dramatically cut the number of people who die from cancer is enormous.” If the test is implemented by the NHS, there will be a temporary increase in workload due to an increase in cancer referrals. There will be long-term benefits for the NHS as well, such as less need for costly treatments like chemotherapy and drugs for more advanced cancers.
The Galleri test detects cancer-related DNA fragments in the blood, and these fragments can provide clues as to the cancer’s likely origin. For the most part, people are only diagnosed with cancer after they show signs of the disease, so this discovery represents a radical shift in how cancer is detected.
Assuming that the test can prevent 10% of all cancer deaths, as the modeling suggests, will become clear only after the results of the NHS trial are published.
Cancers like ovarian and pancreatic are notoriously difficult to detect until it’s too late, but this test offers new hope for those diagnoses.
Letters inviting people aged 50 to 77 were sent out as part of the NHS trial, which was led by Cancer Research UK in collaboration with the King’s College London Cancer Prevention Trials Unit and Grail.
If the blood test is made available routinely, it is expected that those who receive a positive result will be referred for a scan within two weeks. Previous studies have suggested that between 30 and 70 percent of those referred to hospitals in the NHS trial actually had cancer, but researchers are not yet disclosing this information.
Contrast this with the fact that fewer than 10% of those referred to the hospital after a positive breast or bowel cancer screening test actually have cancer. In the NHS trial, half of participants did not have their blood sample analyzed. They will be compared to people who were given the test to see how often their cancer progressed. If it’s noticeably higher, it means the test has prevented people from progressing to a more serious stage of cancer.
If 70% of those invited to take part in the cancer blood test in the UK actually do so, then 130,000 referrals will have been made.
The NHS will be informed of the trial’s preliminary findings in 2024.
In a statement, Cancer Research UK’s Rose Gray said, “Research like this is crucial for making progress against late-stage cancers and giving more patients a chance of a good outcome.”
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