The Future of Cancer Diagnostics: Blood Tests for Circulating Cancer Cells

James Stark, MD, of Stark Oncology

James Stark, MD, of Stark Oncology

Two of the most commonly asked questions asked of your physician are “Do I have cancer?” and, “How do I know I am cured of cancer?” For the first time the same test may be able to answer both.

The holy grail of cancer diagnostics and therapeutics in the second decade of the twenty-first century is the detection of the first, or last, cancer cell.  For years oncologists have developed therapies that have allowed patients to achieve seeming disappearance of their disease, only to have it return.  How can we tell the cancer is cured?  Can we use this technology to tell when cancer first develops?

The answer may be close at hand.  A partnership between Veridex, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, and the Massachusetts General Hospital (Harvard Medical School) is closing in on that needle in a haystack.  Scientists have developed new strategies to detect that needle – a single cancer cell in the bloodstream among billions of normal cells.

Veridex, the commercial partner, first developed the “Circulating Tumor Cell”(CTC) essay in 2004, pioneering this technology. Their scientists found a way to identify tumor cells circulating in the bloodstream of patients with a variety of cancers such as breast cancer. They were looking for the one cell in a million that had genetic properties that they could identify by the labels they had developed. They further were able to show that with successful therapy the number of circulating cells would fall precipitously. Their CTC essay is in use today in the world of clinical oncology.

In order to turn this test into one that could detect the earliest cancers or, alternatively, confirm that a patient’s cancer had been cured, they needed to refine this technology to be able to pick out a single cancer cell among a billion or a trillion normal cells.  Based on preliminary reports these scientists are not only on the brink of being able to do this reliably but they have refined the technology to the point where a desktop device in a hospital lab or a doctor’s office will be able to run the test.

Should this technology bear fruit and become widely available all prior cancer detection strategies such as mammography or colonoscopy could become obsolete, and the cancer patient will be able to be told with a high degree of confidence that he or she is really cured.   Stay tuned…

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