Hope for cancer patients as scientists discover simple test that could tell if disease caused by HPV is coming back
- Liquid biopsy test can predict if cancer caused by HPV is going to come back
- Doctors currently have to take a tissue sample to work out if disease will return
- University of Edinburgh study reveals ‘huge potential’ of the simpler test
A simple blood test has the potential to revolutionise how doctors detect early on if cancer may be returning, British scientists have found.
They discovered the test, known as a liquid biopsy, can accurately predict if cancer caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) is going to come back.
Most people get some type of HPV, passed on via sexual contact, in their life although many clear the infection without ever knowing they had it.
But some rare types increase the risk of certain cancers, including those affecting the head and neck, the cervix, anus and genitals.
Currently, doctors have to take a tissue sample to try to work out if the disease may return after treatment.
They discovered the test, known as a liquid biopsy, can accurately predict if cancer caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) is going to come back (stock image)
This is time-consuming and distressing for patients, and in some cases does not give conclusive results, which can lead to further surgery.
But a study at the University of Edinburgh reveals the ‘huge potential’ of a much simpler test.
Researchers used the liquid biopsy, which has similar methods to PCR testing for Covid, to assess how 104 patients with throat cancer responded to combined chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
The test detected tiny fragments of DNA in the blood which are derived from HPV residing in the tumour.
If the HPV virus is still present in cancer patients, the test can also estimate how many copies there are, which indicates how well the tumour is responding to treatment.
Results revealed that, in 95 per cent of cases, the liquid biopsy results matched those from standard tissue sample tests.
The test detected tiny fragments of DNA in the blood which are derived from HPV residing in the tumour (stock image)
Professor Tim Aitman, of Edinburgh University and co-lead study author, said: ‘By picking up on DNA from tumours before symptoms appear, liquid biopsy has huge potential to revolutionise how we detect cancer at an early stage. We have shown it can work for throat cancer patients but the beauty of the technology is we can adapt it to detect any DNA sequence that is linked to cancer from a simple blood test.’
Twelve weeks after the patients had chemotherapy, the liquid biopsy picked up 92 per cent of those who had no HPV DNA in their blood, confirming the treatment had worked.
In contrast, 75 per cent of patients tested with existing techniques had confirmation that chemotherapy was successful. This, the researchers say, suggests the new test could detect if a treatment has worked more accurately than standard methods.
Co-lead study author Iain Nixon said liquid biopsy ‘can reduce some of the distress and anxiety people feel about their treatment whilst giving doctors a reliable tool to help give patients the best possible care’.
The trial was reported in the European Journal of Surgical Oncology.