Chinese scientists discover new cancer detection method

A technician inspects anti-cancer drugs in vials at a lab of a pharmaceutical company in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, China on March 13, 2019.
PHOTO: Reuters

Chinese scientists have discovered a new way to detect cancer up to four years in advance compared with a conventional diagnosis, allowing for earlier intervention and treatment and an improved prognosis for patients.

A paper about the study was published on the website of the United Kingdom-based journal Nature Communication on Tuesday.

The research found that the signal for early-stage cancer – methylation of circulating tumor DNA - existed in blood samples of patients suffering from rectal cancer, esophagus cancer, liver cancer, lung cancer or stomach cancer long before current clinical diagnoses, said the research team from Shanghai-based Fudan University.

The research was conducted using a biobank from Fudan University's Taizhou Institute of Health Sciences in Taizhou city, Jiangsu province.

The biobank collected plasma samples from over 120,000 healthy individuals, who were cancer-free when they were recruited into the study in 2007.

"When someone was diagnosed with cancer in a hospital, we could trace from his or her blood samples collected years before the diagnosis to verify how much time in advance we could find traces of tumor with our method," said Chen Xingdong, a leading researcher on the team.

With a homegrown screening technology for multiple cancers targeting circulating tumor DNA, the scientists found that the signal could be detected as early as four years before current clinical diagnoses.

Both sensitivity and specificity of the non-invasive test, of which individuals can obtain a result within four hours, were around 90 per cent, Chen said.

Compared with early-stage tumours, which have a five-year survival rate of 91 per cent, the rate for terminal-stage tumours stands at only 26 per cent. Effective approaches to help realise early discovery of cancers are of great significance to individuals and society, doctors said.

Chen said a multi-centre study spanning many parts of the country has been designed and will be launched within this year. It will function as a follow-up study before the research results can be potentially promoted for clinical use.