Protein test can detect 18 early-stage cancers

Scientists have developed a simple test that can identify 18 early-stage cancers that experts say could represent a medical “gamechanger”.

Cancer accounts for one in every six deaths worldwide, but early detection can significantly improve outcomes. Existing screening tests have drawbacks, including invasiveness, cost and low levels of accuracy for early-stage disease.

Now US researchers have designed a test that analyses proteins in the blood and can pick up 18 early-stage cancers, representing all main organs in the human body.

Specific blood proteins could already be used for early detection and monitoring, but until now tests have lacked sensitivity – accuracy of picking up those with cancer – and specificity – accuracy of excluding those without cancer, the researchers said.

The team, from the US biotech firm Novelna, said their test outperformed others relying on tumor DNA in the blood, and had “a sensitivity much greater” than the Galleri test being trialed on the NHS in the UK.

By looking at proteins in blood plasma, the experts were able to differentiate cancer samples from normal ones, and even distinguish between different types of cancers “with high accuracy”, they said. The research also found evidence that cancer protein signals were likely to be sex-specific.

Writing in the journal BMJ Oncology, the team said: “This finding is the foundation for a multi-cancer screening test for the early detection of 18 solid tumours that cover all major human organs of origin for such cancers at the earliest stage of their development with high accuracy.”

They added: “This could re-shape screening guidelines, making this plasma test a standard part of routine check-ups.”

“These findings pave the way for a cost-effective, highly accurate, multi-cancer screening test that can be implemented on a population-wide scale.”

However, the team said their relatively small sample size meant further studies were needed in bigger groups of people.