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Liquid Biopsy: Technology Uses Blood Test to Detect Cancer

Before cancer can be treated it must be diagnosed. Diagnosing cancer often requires patients to undergo tests that are painful or even require surgery.

At UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, a new way of finding cancer—called liquid biopsy—is presenting tremendous possibilities for both early detection and risk assessment through a simple blood draw.

Adrian Lee, PhD, director of Hillman’s Women’s Cancer Research Center, and his lab team at Magee-Womens Research Institute are examining blood samples to determine whether they can be used to detect cancer as accurately as traditional biopsies.

“The promise of liquid biopsy is great and the opportunity for screening potential is invaluable,” says Dr. Lee. “Most biopsies are done with a procedure called a core biopsy, which uses a hollow needle to obtain tissue for testing. Core biopsy can be both invasive and uncomfortable for the patient, and challenging for the doctor, depending on the location of the tumor. Everything we do to treat cancer rests on the biopsy, so liquid biopsy has the potential to enable us to use the blood as a monitor of what’s happening with a tumor without having to isolate the tissue itself.”

Adrian Lee, MD, of UPMC

Adrian Lee, PhD, director of Hillman’s Women’s Cancer Research Center,

Liquid Biopsy: The Future of Biopsies?

Liquid biopsies are much simpler. Essentially, liquid biopsy is an all-encompassing term for the materials that can be found in the blood. Once blood is drawn, a four-step process isolates the DNA and sequences it to identify cancer mutations. The belief is that the information gleaned from the blood holds such potential that, in the long term, it could replace traditional biopsies.

“There are two advantages,” says Dr. Lee. “With liquid biopsies, we can take blood every month and see how the DNA is changing over time. We can track cancer in a way that’s relatively noninvasive but may prove invaluable in screenings. We could potentially use it for early detection when we’re checking for the risk of other cancers.”

Dr. Lee is cautiously optimistic about future applications for cancer detection using liquid biopsy. “While it isn’t going to replace all of the tests we do in the short term, it will complement them,” he says. “There are many examples where we simply can’t obtain the tumor tissue because the risks and challenges are too great. Under those circumstances, liquid biopsy offers a welcome alternative.”

Targeting Cancer Through Early Detection and Noninvasive Tracking

The most encouraging prospect is that liquid biopsy could provide clinicians with the means to detect evidence of disease earlier and track it relatively noninvasively through blood tests. The technology is a win-win for clinicians and patients in the detection and treatment of the moving target that is cancer.

“Like everything else in our lives, clinical medicine, as it applies to liquid biopsy, is fast-moving,” says Dr. Lee. “We’re using liquid biopsies in clinical trials for early detection of cancer and for identifying therapeutic targets. Only one current liquid biopsy test is FDA-approved for patient use in lung cancer, but the goal is to put these to work for early screening and detection.”

There’s no doubt that early detection improves the odds for patients, and a series of noninvasive blood tests to detect cancer before it spreads could save lives. “For example, if we detect cancer localized to the breast early, there’s a 98 or 99 percent survival rate at five years,” says Dr. Lee.  “If we catch it after it has spread, there’s approximately 25 percent survival at five years.”


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