Two new blood tests could help doctors detect colon and stomach cancers simply, cheaply and early without the need for invasive procedures or unpleasant examinations, researchers said on Monday.
The tests, one developed by the Belgian biotech firm OncoMethylome and another by scientists in Germany, use blood samples to detect specific genetic signals of the disease and could help predict whether it is likely to spread.
Ernst Kuipers, a specialist in bowel cancer at Rotterdam's Erasmus University, who was not involved in the research, said the new tests marked a promising advance in the field of developing more convenient screening.
"The blood sample can be taken by nurses or primary care doctors without the need for special equipment or training," Joost Louwagie of OncoMethylome said.
Ulrike Stein, who presented her findings with Louwagie's at the ECCO-ESMO European cancer congress in Berlin, said hers was the first test to be able to detect signals of a specific gene, called S100A4 and known to be linked to cancer, in the blood.
Stein's test finds various types of cancer, including colorectal and gastric cancers, and had also shown potential in identifying patients whose cancer was likely to spread.
"Cancer patients have significantly higher levels of this S100A4 gene than people without cancer," she said. "Being able to detect this gene in the blood of the patient, you can monitor the disease course and you can continue to monitor it over several years and throughout various treatments."
Colorectal cancer effects around one in every 17 people and is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States and Europe, where a total of 560,000 people develop the disease each year, and 250,000 die from it.
Deaths can be reduced if the cancer is diagnosed early, when it is most treatable.
Although current tests such as a colonoscopy internal examination or the analysis of stool samples are effective, they can be invasive, expensive and unpleasant.
Stein and colleagues from the ECRC Charite University of Medicine and the Max-Delbrueck-Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin looked at daily blood samples from 185 colon cancer patients, 190 with rectal cancer and 91 gastric cancer patients. They also analyzed blood from 51 tumor-free volunteers.
They found a signal of the gene at significantly higher levels in those with the cancers. There were even higher levels in patients whose cancer had spread.
Louwagie's team collected blood before surgery from 193 patients known to have colorectal cancer, and from 688 people being screened using a colonoscopy internal examination.
They looked for two so-called methylation genes, SYNE1 and FOXE1, known to be linked to the formation of tumors, and found high levels in colorectal cancer patients, Louwagie said.
OncoMethylome said in August it was in advanced talks with several large companies over licensing rights to its colorectal test.