In the future an experimental blood test could make early detection of cancer possible. Two research studies published in 2020 show exciting advances in DNA methylation analysis, which is a method that examines biochemical alterations of genetic material for the presence of cancer.
Called “liquid biopsies” by some researchers, one of the experiments accurately predicted the emergence of 50 cancers and detected the area where the tumor was growing in thousands of people. The other experiment made predictions up to four years before symptoms occurred. The existence of a single test that can potentially screen for multiple cancers at once could be a huge breakthrough and lead to early interventions and treatments that save lives.
Early Detection of Cancer
A handful of cancer screening tests already exist. Mammograms look for early signs of breast cancer, colonoscopies check for colon cancer and Pap tests screen for cervical cancer. Undergoing these types of tests before symptoms appear can make a difference.
Unfortunately, all of these current cancer screening tests return an unacceptably high rate of false positives. A study, showed that over a period of 10 years 10 to 12 in 100 men screened for prostate cancer have false-positive results.
These new approaches currently being researched could provide accurate and early detection of cancer long before abnormal tissue or cells appear.
DNA Methylation Analysis
This type of early cancer detection could be possible because of a biochemical process, called methylation, which is the transfer of four atoms — one carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms (CH3) – from one substance to another. This transfer to and from substances work as a kind of biological switch, turning on and off a host of systems in the body. Because this process occurs in tens of millions of known places in the body, it has the potential to offer a global view of cancer.
This research showed that up to four years before the study subjects walked into the hospital, there were already signatures in their blood that showed they had cancer.
Although much more research is needed, DNA methylation analysis could fundamentally change cancer treatment. When taken into consideration that caner t is the second leading cause of death worldwide, the progress marks one of the most exciting possibilities in the early detection of cancer.