An example of the effective use of ‘liquid biopsies’ was highlighted last year in a paper published by Nature, featuring work undertaken by the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute and University of Cambridge (2). In the paper, the authors describe how the use of exome sequencing enabled them to analyze circulating DNA and take a snapshot of the genetic errors in patients with breast cancer. Samples taken before and after treatment were compared, allowing different treatments to be monitored. DNA is a much more reliable biomarker than protein, and researchers can now begin to understand how cancers change during treatment, and how that affects the development of drug resistance.
This research is in its very early stages, however the development of a ‘liquid biopsy’ could enable researchers to understand how a tumor is evolving and responding to treatment. Once the tumor signatures are fully understood, liquid biopsies could be used for very early diagnosis of cancers, which in turn would improve survival rates.
The last area of research involves the use of advanced imaging to give an accurate view of tumors in the body. MRI scans are extremely important in giving information on location, type and characteristics of a tumor. Advanced imaging could, for example, be used to non-invasively look at blood vessels that are feeding a tumor, to determine whether that tumor is growing or dying. This could help physicians to determine whether a particular treatment approach is effective.
Cancer research can also take unusual turns as scientists try to tackle the disease. Many of us will have read stories in the media of dogs pawing at the chests of women who are subsequently diagnosed with breast cancer. Dogs have a very sensitive sense of smell and some studies have suggested they can detect volatile organic molecules, such as those released by tumors. Current research is exploring the possibility of ‘electronic noses’ which would be able to detect certain tumor scents or signatures. This research is also in its infant stages but could one day result in an innovative diagnostic tool.
All diagnostic tests must be highly accurate, specific and safe. A huge amount of research is still to be carried out on the discussed diagnostic methods before they can be utilized in the fight against cancer.
There has been much discussion about the moral, ethics and relevance of the ‘no make-up selfie’ campaign. In the brutal world of cancer, anyone whose life has been touched by the disease will tell you that true bravery does not come from a woman bearing her face devoid of make-up. However, it seems irrelevant to argue over the tenuous link between selfies and cancer, or about whether we have missed the point of the original campaign. The truth is that ‘no make-up selfies’ have raised over £8m to help fund lifesaving research. Does it really matter how?
With thanks to Flora Malein, Press Officer, Cancer Research UK and Dr Emma Smith, Science Communications Team, Cancer Research UK
(1) Intratumor Heterogeneity and Branched Evolution Revealed by Multiregion Sequencing N Engl J Med 2012; DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1113205 http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1113205
(2) Cancer Research UK, Blood test tracks breast cancer http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2013/03/13/blood-test-tracks-breast-cancer/