Lung cancer breakthrough as NHS trials cutting-edge new blood test that could diagnose patients earlier and drastically boost survival rates

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Thousands of Brits with suspected lung cancer will be offered a new blood test to detect the killer disease quicker as part of an NHS trial. 

Health chiefs hope the ‘exciting’ scheme will help patients get targeted treatments quicker — boosting their survival rates. 

Experts said the kits have the ‘potential to transform cancer care for patients’.

The cutting-edge ‘liquid biopsy’ looks for tiny fragments of tumour DNA circulating in blood.

Lung cancer is the world’s biggest cancer kill. It is notoriously difficult to diagnose and often appears later when it’s harder to treat. 

Health chiefs hope the ‘exciting’ scheme will help patients get targeted treatments quicker — boosting their survival rates. Lung cancer patient Kat Robinson (pictured), from Dorset, was able to take tablets at home rather get treatment in hospital, giving her more time with her 11-year-old daughter Paige

The 33-year-old was diagnosed with stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer in September 2023. She said she has been told she has at least one year to live, but may survive for several more. Pictured, Kat Robinson with her daughter Paige

The 33-year-old was diagnosed with stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer in September 2023. She said she has been told she has at least one year to live, but may survive for several more. Pictured, Kat Robinson with her daughter Paige

Symptoms of lung cancer are often not noticeable until the cancer has spread through the lungs, to other parts of the body

Symptoms of lung cancer are often not noticeable until the cancer has spread through the lungs, to other parts of the body

Around 50,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer in the UK each year. 

Figures show it kills four out of five patients within five years. Fewer than 10 per cent of people survive their disease for 10 years or more.

Currently, tissue biopsies are used to confirm a diagnosis and samples can then be sent for genomic testing, which can leave people waiting up to a month. 

Under the new NHS trial, tests will be analysed in a laboratory at the Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton, Surrey. Results are returned around two weeks later. 

More than 2,000 patients who presented with cancer symptoms have already had the test under a smaller NHS pilot.

A further 10,000 patients with suspected non-small cell lung cancer will be offered it by next March. 

It could involve most trusts across the country.

The tests work by looking for chemical changes in fragments of genetic code – cell-free DNA (cfDNA) – that leak from tumours into the bloodstream. 

It alerts medics if a cancer signal has been detected and predicts where in the body that signal may have originated.

Some cancer tumours are known to shed DNA into the blood a long time before a person would start experiencing symptoms.

Professor Sanjay Popat, co-clinical lead of the ctDNA pilot and a consultant medical oncologist at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, said: ‘CtDNA liquid biopsies have the potential to transform cancer care for patients, from earlier diagnosis to prognosis and better management of treatments.

‘It is fantastic that through collaborating with NHS England we can look to bring cutting-edge genomic testing to patients in the NHS, resulting in many patients receiving targeted treatments rather than standard chemotherapy.

Lung cancer patient Kat Robinson, from Dorset, was able to take tablets at home rather get treatment in hospital, giving her more time with her 11-year-old daughter Paige. 

The 33-year-old was diagnosed with stage four non-small cell lung cancer in September 2023. 

She said she has been told she has at least one year to live, but may survive for several more.

The test revealed her cancer growth was being driven by a mutation in the ALK gene.

Although uncommon, the mutation is often seen in younger patients with non-small cell lung cancer who, like Ms Robinson, are non-smokers.

Currently, tissue biopsies are used to confirm a diagnosis and samples can then be sent for genomic testing, which can leave people waiting up to a month. Under the new NHS trial, tests will be analysed in a laboratory at the Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton, Surrey. Results are returned around two weeks later

Currently, tissue biopsies are used to confirm a diagnosis and samples can then be sent for genomic testing, which can leave people waiting up to a month. Under the new NHS trial, tests will be analysed in a laboratory at the Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton, Surrey. Results are returned around two weeks later 

She takes the drug brigatinib, costing around £5,000 a month. Doctors have also told her there is another targeted drug she can take before requiring radiotherapy and chemotherapy, she said. 

‘When I first heard my diagnosis, I spent a lot of time trying to understand if I did it to myself,’ she said.

‘Having the ctDNA test results back gave me a sense of relief that there was no one to blame, I couldn’t be angry about it.

‘The tablets help me keep my cancer in check, they are allowing me to carry on with my day-to-day life. I can do things with my family – I can be a mum to my daughter.’

Researchers believe a key reason why lung cancer survival rates are so low is because the tumour cells rapidly evolve, develop resistance to treatments and evade the immune system.

Currently, the majority of lung cancer sufferers are given gruelling chemotherapy, which drains their body, to kill the cancer cells.

Dr Michael Hubank, scientific lead for the North Thames Genomics Laboratory Hub and joint head of clinical genomics at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, said: ‘For many years, research has highlighted the power liquid biopsies, like ctDNA, can have in cancer care.

‘Advanced genomics testing like this, brings us a step closer to providing precision medicine to patients in the NHS.’

Meanwhile, Professor Dame Sue Hill, chief scientific officer for England, said: ‘This pilot is an exciting step in our work to bring more targeted treatments to NHS patients.

While the level of progress for cancer survival for some forms of the disease has been rapid, such as for breast and prostate cancers, others, like those for lung and pancreas have only improved at a snail's pace

While the level of progress for cancer survival for some forms of the disease has been rapid, such as for breast and prostate cancers, others, like those for lung and pancreas have only improved at a snail’s pace

‘The testing of thousands of patients with this innovative ctDNA test, is part of our ongoing commitment to deliver a world-leading genomic medicine service and transform the way we diagnose and treat people — often with far greater speed and accuracy.’

The health service is currently grappling with a post-Covid backlog of cancer referrals, with latest NHS data showing more than 10,000 patients did not start cancer treatment within two months of an urgent referral from their GP.

It means just six in 10 cancer patients (62.3 per cent) were seen within the two-month target.

NHS guidelines state 85 per cent of cancer patients should be seen within this time-frame. 

But, this target has not been met nationally since December 2015. 

Just 70.9 per cent of patients urgently referred for suspected cancer were diagnosed or had cancer ruled out within 28 days, down from 74.2 per cent the previous month. The target is 75 per cent.

WHAT IS LUNG CANCER?

Lung cancer is one of the most common and serious types of cancer. 

Around 47,000 people are diagnosed with the condition every year in the UK.

There are usually no signs or symptoms in the early stages of lung cancer, but many people with the condition eventually develop symptoms including:

– a persistent cough

– coughing up blood

– persistent breathlessness

– unexplained tiredness and weight loss

– an ache or pain when breathing or coughing

You should see a GP if you have these symptoms.

Types of lung cancer 

There are two main forms of primary lung cancer. 

These are classified by the type of cells in which the cancer starts growing. 

They are:

– Non-small-cell lung cancer. The most common form, accounting for more than 87 per cent of cases. 

– It can be one of three types: squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma or large-cell carcinoma.

– Small-cell lung cancer – a less common form that usually spreads faster than non-small-cell lung cancer.

– The type of lung cancer you have determines which treatments are recommended.

Who’s affected

Lung cancer mainly affects older people. It’s rare in people younger than 40. 

More than four out of 10 people diagnosed with lung cancer in the UK are aged 75 and older.

Although people who have never smoked can develop lung cancer, smoking is the most common cause (accounting for about 72 per cent of cases). 

This is because smoking involves regularly inhaling a number of different toxic substances.

Treating lung cancer

Treatment depends on the type of mutation the cancer has, how far it’s spread and how good your general health is.

If the condition is diagnosed early and the cancerous cells are confined to a small area, surgery to remove the affected area of lung may be recommended.

If surgery is unsuitable due to your general health, radiotherapy to destroy the cancerous cells may be recommended instead.

If the cancer has spread too far for surgery or radiotherapy to be effective, chemotherapy is usually used.

There are also a number of medicines known as targeted therapies. 

They target a specific change in or around the cancer cells that is helping them to grow. 

Targeted therapies cannot cure lung cancer but they can slow its spread.

Source: NHS 

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