A few years ago, the availability of on-demand body scans were a hot topic: consumers were promised that if they paid anywhere between $250 and $750 for a full body CT scan. Though the costs were generally not covered by health insurance policies, many hoped that by investing in the test they would be able to get an early diagnosis of any cancer that might be lurking in their bodies, giving them a leg up on treatment and survival. Those centers still exist but have fallen out of favor as physicians warned that they held out more risk then benefit, but now comes word that scientists are close to being able to detect cancer through a simple blood test administered during your regular check-up with your family physician.
The tests are known as liquid biopsies, and though they are not yet ready to be used for early diagnosis, they are already being used in cancer patients who have already been diagnosed.
Cancer patients may be able to benefit greatly from liquid biopsies.
It has proven to be particularly helpful for those whose tumors lie so close to vital organs or arteries that conducting a surgical biopsy presents a danger, allowing physicians to simply look at the blood in order to assess whether cancer has returned.
The liquid biopsy works because cancer leaves behind specific markers in the bloodstream that act in much the same way that a bar-code does on the products that we purchase. According to oncologist Dr. David Hyman of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City,
“The concept is, essentially, each genetic mutation is unique, and it kind of labels the DNA as having come from the cancer. In that sense, you can kind of think of it as a bar code. There’s no question that this technology has tremendous promise in identifying mutations of clinical relevance to patients with cancer and helping guide therapy. I think it will start to enter into the realm of routine clinical practice, in limited areas at first, where it’s well studied and well proven.”
Proving its worth is what is expected to happen over the next several years. The tests are pricey, averaging approximately $5,400 per test, and only some insurance plans are willing to shoulder the fee. But as the price for the tests drops and as their applications expand, they are likely to be seen in wider applications.
Though the idea of being able to have cancer detected at the same time that hemoglobin or cholesterol is tested is attractive, the tests are not there yet – for now they are largely being used in those who have been diagnosed with Stage 3 or Stage 4 cancers to assess the effectiveness of ongoing treatment protocols without having to look at the tumor itself or subject the patient to painful treatments.
One of the things that need to be determined is exactly which cancers are able to be identified through the tests. Initial studies have found that they are much more effective in those whose cancers have metastasized then in patients whose tumors are localized, and certain cancers are virtually undetectable as a result of the way that the immune system and the body’s various barriers regulate the passage of substances.
Still, researchers are predicting that the liquid biopsies will have been refined enough in the next five years that they may be used on a regular basis. According to Dr. Mark Roschewski of the National Cancer Institute,
“It’s not quite ready for prime time, but it’s moving in that direction.”
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