‘Liquid’ Cancer Test Offers Hope for Alternative to Painful Biopsies

Jun 4, 2016

By Andrew Pollack

A blood test to detect cancer mutations produced results that generally agree with those of an invasive tumor biopsy, researchers reported, heralding a time when diagnosing cancer and monitoring its progression may become less painful and risky.

The blood tests, known as liquid biopsies, represent one of the hottest trends in oncology. They take advantage of the fact that DNA fragments from tumors can be found in tiny amounts in the blood of patients with cancer.

Researchers hope that such tests can become alternatives to conventional tumor biopsies, in which a piece of the tumor is extracted by needle or by surgery — procedures that can have complications.

The results of the study, the largest to date of a liquid biopsy test, give some reassurance that this might be possible.

“I think this study really demonstrates the veracity of the liquid biopsy approach,” said Philip C. Mack, director of molecular pharmacology at the University of California Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, who is presenting the results here this weekend to the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

The liquid biopsies are not currently used to diagnose cancer but rather to monitor disease progression or to detect genetic mutations in the tumor that could suggest which drug should be used to treat the disease.

Just this week the Food and Drug Administration gave its first approval for such a test, one developed by Roche to detect mutations in a particular gene. Lung cancers with mutations in that gene are vulnerable to treatment with certain drugs, including Roche’s own Tarceva. Many liquid biopsy tests are being sold by other companies under rules that do not require F.D.A. approval.

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