Singapore scientists develop blood test to spot stomach cancer

A blood test to assess early stage stomach cancer, a major killer here, could be rolled out in Singapore hospitals as soon as next year.

Instead of having to go for an uncomfortable endoscopy to see if they are at risk, patients can first take the blood test to see if more detailed tests are needed.

The diagnostic kit is the brainchild of Mirxes - a spin-off by local researchers from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).

With just a few drops of blood, doctors are able to detect accurately whether a patient has developed early stage gastric cancer.

The kit detects the patterns of microRNA - a type of gene present in a blood sample - and the results can be obtained in as quickly as three hours.

"Screening and early detection help save lives but the issue with the existing screening methods are that they are extremely invasive and costly," said Mirxes co-founder Zhou Lihan.

"Because of endoscopy being an invasive procedure, there is going to be some people who refuse to do it."

According to National Cancer Centre Singapore, stomach cancer is among the top ten cancers in Singapore. In Asia, it affects more than 700,000 people each year.

Early detection is key to improving patient outcomes but early stage stomach cancer rarely causes any symptoms.

Current methods used to detect the cancer are endoscopy and biopsy, which involve passing a scope through the mouth into the stomach to collect samples of possibly cancerous ulcers or bumps.

The kit, which was first developed in 2012, would also help to cut costs. According to clinical data, it is estimated that only one in about 170 patients who undergo endoscopy actually have gastric cancer, said Dr Zhou.

According to the Ministry of Health's website, an endoscopy could range around $300 to $900 with medical subsidy.

Co-developed with the Singapore Gastric Cancer Consortium, which is led by gastroenterologist Yeoh Khay Guan, the kit is undergoing clinical validation with 7,000 patients. Upon regulatory approval, the test available will be launched in local hospitals.

The technology is also being used for research by top universities and research institutes globally, including Georgetown University in the United States.

Clinical scientist Martin Brand from the University of the Witwatersrand Department of Surgery, said that he is working with Mirxes to develop a kit which could detect pancreatic cancer and monitor patient response.

"Currently, we are identifying which microRNAs are important in pancreas cancer patients. Once we have this done, Mirxes will develop a kit that we can use in a prospective study," said Dr Brand.

Despite its success, Mirxes co-founder Too Heng-Phon from A*Star said it was not a bed of roses when they were first looking to start out. Investors were cautious and there were scientists in the international community who were sceptical of using microRNAs to detect cancer.

"It was tough and there were people who were sceptical, but we believe in what we did," said Dr Too.

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