Test tubes

Technology can help to diagnose cancer earlier - but it must be tested first

We’ve previously written about some of the problems that can occur when scientific findings get over-hyped. And it can be just as problematic when we hear about ‘breakthroughs’ based on research that hasn’t even been done yet – as we see with today’s headlines talking excitedly about an “amazing new test to detect cancer” that can pick out “one in a billion” cells.

The test technology takes the form of a small chip coated in thousands of tiny ‘bristles’, each topped with a different antibody. In principle, the chip can ‘pull out’ a single cancer cell from a sample of blood, and analyse its molecular properties.

Not only would this be useful for detecting cancer early in a non-invasive way, but it could also provide useful information for doctors about the molecular makeup of a tumour, helping them to personalise a patient’s treatment.

But not so fast! Despite the enticing descriptions, this technology is a long way from being available for patients. In fact, the stories come from a press release put out by the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson, announcing a research collaboration to take the test technology – which is still at an early stage – into larger-scale tests and clinical trials.

Although the technology is interesting and could well prove useful, much more work needs to be done to prove how effective the test actually is on a larger scale. Also, the chips need to be produced on a cost-effective scale if they are ever to be available to the general population.

The American Cancer Society’s blogger, the ever-insightful Dr Len Lichtenfeld, has written a detailed analysis of the story.

He points out:

“First, and perhaps the most obvious, is the fact that this is an announcement of a research deal. Nothing more, nothing less. It is not a new breakthrough. It is not something that has been proven effective in improving cancer detection and treatment.

…As with all research it is a giant step to go successfully from the laboratory phase of development to the clinical phase of making a real difference in patients’ lives.

So that in essence is what the fuss is all about: the researchers have signed a contract with a company to further develop this research and determine whether in fact it can be applied successfully to large numbers of patients in a more efficient and less expensive manner.”

Read more on Dr Len’s blog.