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Simple blood test could be 'smoke detector' for throat cancer

12 September 2016

By Meetal Solanki

Appeared in BioNews 868

A blood test costing only £35 could help in the early diagnosis of oesophageal cancer and could be available in five years' time.

Researchers from Swansea University showcased their research into detecting pre-symptomatic cancer from mutations in red blood cells at the British Science Festival this week.

In a study of 300 people with and without signs of pre-cancer and oesophageal cancer, the researchers detected changes in the proteins on the surface of red blood cells that increased in occurrence when cancer was present.

Professor Gareth Jenkins, the study's lead, explained: 'The test can be likened to a "cancer smoke detector" because a smoke detector does not detect the presence of fire in our homes but detects its by-product – smoke.'

Healthy red blood cells contain glycoproteins (molecules made up of sugars and proteins), which are normally anchored on the surface of the cell. These are often used by cell-surface markers to 'stick' to the cell.

In oesophageal cancer, a mutation causes a loss of these glycoproteins along with the surface markers. Researchers found that through this differentiation they could detect cancer in 80 percent of the patients with the disease.

The results may be good news for people at risk of developing oesophageal cancer, for which invasive procedures such as endoscopy are often used for diagnosis. Early diagnosis could also be the difference between whether a tumour is detected early enough to be surgically removed, or the tumour becoming malignant and spreading throughout the body.

'This could have huge potential, as early diagnosis is a key factor in survival rates,' the researchers said. However, larger studies involving more patients and other cancers would need to confirm their results before clinical use.

The team will now attempt to see if pancreatic cancer can be detected in the same way.

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