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The Experts

Can cancer be detected by a blood test?

Dr Ross Walker
Thursday, November 08, 2018

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In most cases a few decades ago, a diagnosis of cancer was a death sentence. For the last few decades, however, there have been enormous strides in the management of most forms of cancer. The standard treatment up to recently has been extensive surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Improvements in all three areas have seen much better treatments available for most cases of cancer. But, over the past decade, there have been enormous advances in the personalised management of cancer. Creating a vaccine from a person’s own tumour is an extremely promising new technique. Also, Immunotherapy is now becoming widely used, where a person’s own immune system specifically targets the cancer. It’s a little known fact that cancer cells have almost an invisible shield around them, making them undetectable by the immune system. Many of these new immunotherapy techniques literally punch holes in the shield, allowing the immune system to recognise the malignant cells. Also, as part of immunotherapy, the immune cells and, in particular, the T cells, are being altered and enhanced in their ability to detect and kill cancer cells.

But there’s no doubt that the best management of cancer is prevention and coming a close second is early detection. Regarding preventative strategies for cancer, following solid and well-established lifestyle principles is always the most important. The most obvious example here is clearly do not smoke. 80% of lung cancers are directly related to cigarette smoking and if smoking was not freely available, we would see the rates of lung cancer plummet.

We’ve heard for many years the benefits of good diet to prevent heart disease but this is also the case for cancer. People having two to three pieces of fruit per day and three to five servings of vegetables per day have the lowest rates of heart disease and cancer in the community, as one example of good nutrition preventing common diseases.

We now have many excellent, well-validated scanning techniques that can detect early cancers and also some reasonable blood tests that give us a good pointer to the presence of a cancer. Early detection remains vitally important and recently a potential huge breakthrough came from the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom, which has developed in conjunction with the medical industry, a technique known as IMSTAR Pathfinder system, which generically detects the early presence of any cancers.

The theory is that when you are healthy, your body is in maintenance mode and your cells are in balance. The presence in the body of cancer, even at its early stage, puts the body into stress mode and the immune cells, which are our body’s defence system, are one of the most stressed parts of the body. Even though an immune cell may not be able to recognise an early cancer because of the shield around the cell that I previously mentioned, the cancer still releases toxic chemicals into the blood stream, which induces this immune stress. This new technique subjects white cells to UV light and detects damage to DNA. The cells appear that they have almost a comet like tail, whereas people without cancer do not have this appearance on their white cells. This has been shown to detect early cancers in over 95% of cases and is normal in close to 100% of people who do not have cancer.

Once this has been proven with more research, this should be commercially available at some stage over the next few years. Imagine a situation where you go to a doctor for your routine check-up and as part of your normal blood work, this test is also performed. The detection of an early cancer could then lead to much less extensive early management and cure. The future of medicine is clearly very exciting.

Published: Thursday, November 08, 2018


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