Researchers hail ‘breakthrough’ in blood-based technology for cancer research

Researchers in British Columbia are celebrating what they believe to be a “breakthrough” in blood-based technology for treating and studying various forms of cancer.

Metastatic cancers shed DNA into a person’s bloodstream, explained Vancouver Prostate Centre senior researcher Dr. Alexander Wyatt. In collaboration with BC Cancer, he said the team has developed a blood test that uses an “unprecedented level technological resolution” to examine each cancer’s unique genetic makeup.

“The more we understand about each person’s cancer, the better we can design and target treatments to ultimately kill the cancer,” the University of British Columbia assistant professor told Global News.

“What it also means is that we can learn more about how advanced cancers develop and become treatment-resistant.”

The research, more than five years in the making, was published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature. The study was funded in part through donations to the Vancouver General and UBC hospital foundations, and the BC Cancer Foundation.

Researchers used blood tests to study the cancer DNA from patients with metastatic prostate cancer. In practice, Wyatt said the new technology will allow patients in rural areas to submit a vial of their blood to medical professionals by mail, who can then study its makeup and attempt to devise a treatment.

“What this means ultimately for the patient is that we can move to a model where we can much better individualize cancer treatment,” he said. “We believe this is a huge breakthrough and we’re really excited about the next steps for our research.”

Several precision medical trials using the blood tests are now underway across the country. The researchers have also shared their codes, data and methods publicly in an effort to expand and inspire blood-based technology in cancer research and treatment around the world.

The research was co-led by Dr. Kim Nguyen Chi, chief medical officer and oncologist at BC Cancer, and a professor in the UBC Department of Medicine.

According to the team, the blood test is minimally-invasive, relatively inexpensive and scalable — applicable to other types of cancer as well.