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A new "smoke detector" for cancer diagnosis can detect lung cancer, breast cancer, melanoma, and liver cancer up to 10 years earlier than current methods.

One of the latest and possibly greatest innovations in oncology is a new "smoke detector" providing early warning for early treatment of cancer. This new device may reveal cancer 10 years before symptoms become evident.

Requiring just a single drop of blood from a finger stick and costing just £35 ($42), this new cancer diagnosis method developed by scientists in the oncology department at the University of Swansea in Wales analyzes red blood cells for mutations that can be detected in just a couple of hours. The test is currently being used to diagnose esophageal cancer and is in testing for use in detecting pancreatic cancer, but scientists believe it will be useful for early diagnosis of lung cancer, breast cancer, melanoma, and liver cancer and more.

What's special about the new approach to diagnosing cancer? To answer that question, it helps to understand some of the limitations of our current methods of early cancer diagnosis with biomarkers. You may have heard of some of these tests.

  • Alpha Fetoprotein (also known as AFP) is a protein made by the fetus in the womb that disappears in the baby’s bloodstream after birth. It shows up in some non-cancerous conditions, such as cirrhosis of the liver and viral hepatitis. It also appears in 60 percent of men in the early stages of testicular cancer and in 80 percent of cases of advanced testicular cancer.
  • Cancer Antigen 125 (CA-125) is a protein that can be made by cancer cells. However, it can also be made by healthy cells. It can be manufactured developmentally abnormal cells that have not yet become cancerous in the abdomen in both sexes. In women, it also can appear in the cervix or uterus with or without cancer. This protein appears in over 50 percent of women in the earliest stages of ovarian cancer.
  • Cancer Antigen 15-3 (CA 15-3) is also a protein that is sometimes made by cancer cells and sometimes made by healthy cells. It  appears in some but not all cases of sarcoidosis, tuberculosis, and liver disease. It can be detected in approximately 19 percent of early-stage cases of breast cancer and 95 percent of late-stage cases of breast cancer.
  • Cancer Antigen 19-9 (CA 19-9) likewise sometimes made by healthy cells and sometimes made by cancerous cells and sometimes made when there is a disease that isn’t cancer. CA 19-9 can be detected in non-cancerous liver disease or pancreatitis, although not in all cases. It appears in about 60 to 70 percent of cases of biliary cancer and 80 to 90 percent of cases of pancreatic cancer.
  • Human chorionic gonadotrophin (HCG) naturally occurs in the bloodstream. Levels rise sharply in pregnancy, in ovarian cancer, and in testicular cancer.
  • Neuron-Specific Enolase (NSE) is almost always an indicator of cancer. However, it is not specific. It can be detected in small cell lung cancer. It also appears when therelarge lung tumors, and in some but not all cases of Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, pancreatic cancer, and medullary thyroid cancer.
Continue reading after recommendations

  • Haboubi HN et al. Assay to detect the PIGA gene mutation as a novel blood-based biomarker in cancer. Lancet. 387: S48. 25 February 2016.
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