Caring for patients with cancer can be incredibly rewarding. We’ve seen amazing progress in recent years, with new tests and therapies that enable us to successfully treat and manage the disease for more people. But significant challenges remain.
Tumours evolve over time, adapting to their surroundings, becoming resistant to treatments and spreading to other parts of the body. We and others have reasoned that the earlier disease relapse can be detected, the smaller the burden of disease and the greater the chance that treatments will be effective.
This is why we started TRACERx, a Cancer Research UK funded study to track lung cancer evolution in real time, looking at how genetic changes and diversity within tumours affects the course of disease. We’ve followed hundreds of patients, from diagnosis through to either disease relapse or cure after surgery, tracking and analysing how their cancer has developed.
In one of our studies from 2017, we showed that we could use the patchwork of genetic faults, defined through gene-sequencing of a patient’s lung tumour tissue, as a cancer fingerprint. We showed that this fingerprint could help identify remnants of that patient’s cancer following surgery through a simple blood test. In some cases, we could detect relapsing cancer many months before doctors caring for that patient found that same cancer on routine follow-up scans.
The ctDNA test is based upon patient-specific genetic mutations, present in every part of their tumour. Amplifying these unique markers makes it easier to detect a minimal amount of residual disease – the needle in the haystack that’s almost impossible to spot.
And just last week we had the news that all researchers hope for. The validation of this ground-breaking technology has helped improve outcomes for patients.