Timing is Everything

Recent research developments offer quicker ways to diagnose cancer

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There may be no greater boon to combating cancer than diagnosing the disease in its earliest and most treatable stages. Exciting new technologies that detect cancer in faster, smarter ways are making sure that happens.

One in a Billion

Researchers at the MGH Cancer Center have developed a sophisticated blood test that can detect a single cancer cell lurking among a billion healthy cells. These stray cancer cells' presence could mean a tumor has spread or metasticized.

The test forgoes usual biopsy procedures in cancer patients for a technique researchers likened to a "liquid biopsy" blood test. The test utilizes a microchip covered with 78,000 tiny posts coated with antibodies that attract and bind to cancer cells. A stain makes the cancer cells glow, allowing scientists to capture and study them.

The measure, which could be used for routine cancer screenings within ten years, will allow researchers to sample tumors without having to conduct invasive biopsies multiple times throughout a patient's treatment, said Dr. Daniel Haber, director of the MGH Cancer Center.

An End to the Waiting Game?

It's called nonlinear interferometric vibrational imaging (NIVI), but in English that means a kind of instant cancer test that could make long, anxious waiting periods for biopsy results a thing of the past. Researchers at the University of Illinois developed the tissue-imaging technique that outlines tumor boundaries using color-coded tissue images -- with more than 99 percent accuracy.

The best part? The images were rendered in less than five minutes.

Stephen A. Boppart, who holds appointments in electrical and computer engineering, bioengineering and medicine at UI, said he and collaborators wanted to make medical diagnostics "more quantitative and more rapid."

Traditional biopsy results are based on very subjective interpretations, Boppart said.

Instead of focusing on cell and tissue structure, NIVI assesses and produces images based on a molecular composition. Cells with abnormally high protein concentrations, which serve as a marker for cancer cells, are identified with NIVI, allowing researchers to differentiate between tumors and healthy tissue.

A Perfect FIT

A new type of blood stool test known as fecal immunochemical testing (FIT) may help doctors deter colorectal cancers (CRC) in between scheduled colonoscopies, according to researchers at Flinders Medical Centre in Australia. The finding is especially useful for patients with a personal or family history of CRC.

Flinders' Graeme P. Young, MD, said repeated negative fecal immunochemical tests meant the chance of detecting cancer or advanced adenomas (benign tumors of glandular origin) was significantly reduced.

The FIT study looked at 1,736 patients with a family or personal history of CRC who had received an initial colonoscopy with at least one follow-up in the presence of a trained colonoscopist. FITs found 12 out of 14 cancers and 60 of 96 advanced adenomas in 1,071 asymptomatic patients who underwent at least one FIT after a colonoscopy.