Blood test for cancer could replace biopsies

PHARMACEUTICAL giant Johnson & Johnson said it is partnering with US doctors to improve a blood test that could replace biopsies and transform the field of cancer treatment.

The Circulating Tumor Cell (CTC) technology, which inventors describe as a “liquid biopsy,” has been touted as a revolutionary approach to diagnosing cancer since it was first developed several years ago by doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital.

It works by detecting cancer cells that have detached from a tumor and are circulating at very low levels in the blood.

But until now, the technology has been unable to do much more than count cells, giving doctors an idea of what is happening with a patient’s cancer but not delivering the precision that the latest version can.

“The new technology allows us to not just count them but to understand the molecular changes that lead to the disease progression that is occurring in the cells,” said Nicholas Dracopoli, vice president of Ortho Biotech Oncology Research and Development (ORD), a unit of Johnson & Johnson.

With just a single blood draw, the new technology can find and trap a single cancer cell from among a billion blood cells without the patient having to undergo invasive and often painful surgical biopsy procedures.

“That will then allow us to do sophisticated molecular analysis of those isolated cells so that we can then look and see if there are therapies that are optimally suited to a patient with those particular abnormalities,” Dracopoli said.

The new technique “allows us… to monitor in real time what is happening in the tumor in a way you never could if you had to do a surgical procedure each time in order to get the samples, as we do today.”

In other words, doctors could know a lot sooner whether a therapy for cancer is succeeding or failing, and they could possibly tailor a patient’s treatment accordingly.

The partnership brings Veridex – the company which brought the earlier version of the test to the US market – together with ORD and clinical researchers to develop an improved version of the current technology.

“This collaboration is an opportunity to apply our past learning to the advancement of a platform that will ultimately benefit patients with cancer,” said lead CTC chip researcher Mehmet Toner.

The US Food and Drug Administration approved the earlier generation technology for use in detecting cancer cells in the blood of patients with metastatic, or advanced stage, breast, prostate and colorectal cancer.

The planned “next-generation system” would be used by oncologists “as a diagnostic tool for personalizing patient care, as well as by researchers to accelerate and improve the process of drug discovery and development,” Veridex said in a statement.

For instance, the test could allow for advances in treatment of lung cancer, where the tumors are not easy to feel and where research has shown certain genetic mutations respond best to specific treatments.

Dracopoli said it could be three to five years before FDA clinical trials produce results that show the technique works for detecting and treating a broader range of cancers.

“A big part of the collaboration over the next few years will be testing the technology in prospectively defined clinical trials and confirming that this information actually helps guide therapies and improves patient outcomes,” he said.

“We hope this will be a means of significantly improving the way that patients are treated, in the sense that we can get information about how a patient is responding to therapy in a way that we cannot right now.”

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