Groundbreaking blood test is now capable of detecting multiple common cancers

This remarkable test can discern infinitesimal levels of a unique cancer biomarker, showing significant potential for early cancer detection

[Oct. 18, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

This surpasses the efficacy of many other commercially available tests, spotlighting a promising future for ovarian cancer diagnosis. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

In a groundbreaking leap toward enhancing cancer diagnostics, a team of leading researchers from prestigious institutions such as Mass General Brigham, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and several others across the U.S. and internationally, have innovated a low-cost, highly sensitive blood test.

This remarkable test can discern infinitesimal levels of a unique cancer biomarker, showing significant potential for early cancer detection, ongoing disease monitoring, and as an adjunct tool in the comprehensive management of cancer care.

The study, published in the esteemed journal Cancer Discovery, reflects an ambitious collaboration of experts in the field, aiming to surmount the limitations of current cancer detection methods which often suffer from inadequate sensitivity and specificity, not to mention the exorbitant costs associated.

David Walt, Ph.D., a co-corresponding author of the study from the Department of Pathology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a core faculty member at the Wyss Institute, highlighted the novelty of this research area. “Cancer biomarker detection is a burgeoning area of research and is still a young field,” he asserted. “Our results show that we can detect levels of this pan-cancer biomarker in the blood of patients with many types of cancers.”

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The ingenuity of the study is rooted in the use of a cutting-edge technology known as Single Molecule Array (SIMOA), pioneered by the Walt lab. The focal point of the test is the detection of the open reading frame 1 protein (ORF1p), a constituent known to be present in numerous cancer types but conspicuously absent in normal tissues. Notably, ORF1p indicates a heightened risk of cancer fatality, making its early detection a potential lifesaver.

The journey to this discovery wasn't straightforward. The research team embarked on what was initially conceptualized as a pilot investigation. The astonishing efficacy of the test surpassed their expectations, propelling them toward subsequent enhancements through meticulous engineering adjustments and extensive trials with patient samples.

Martin Taylor, M.D., Ph.D., the study’s lead author from the Department of Pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital, shared his surprise at the findings. “We were shocked by how well this test worked in detecting the biomarker’s expression across cancer types,” he exclaimed. The success of this initiative has not only posed new intriguing scientific queries but also kindled collaborative interests among multiple academic establishments.

ORF1p expression is early and pervasive in carcinomas. a, ORF1p immunostaining in a cohort of 211 colorectal cancers. b, Representative BE case: lesional cells overexpress p53, the L1 RNA, and ORF1p. c, L1 RNA and ORF1p overexpression across a cohort of 72 consensus BE cases and 51 carcinomas. (CREDIT: Cancer Discovery)

The research transcended institutional boundaries, involving specialists from a spectrum of institutions such as Beth Israel Deaconess, MIT, Rockefeller University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Washington (Seattle), Johns Hopkins, Groningen (Netherlands), and Canon Medical. The investigative team scrutinized blood samples from patients afflicted with diverse cancer forms, including ovarian and colorectal cancer, and their findings were revelatory.

The tool demonstrated its prowess by successfully identifying ORF1p in the blood samples from cancer patients, with false positives in 'healthy' patients being exceedingly rare, thereby underscoring its specificity in cancer detection. Further studies in tissue samples from approximately 200 colon cancer patients and 75 esophageal biopsies unveiled the prevalent expression of ORF1p in carcinomas and high-risk precursor lesions.

Improved detection of ORF1p with second- and third-generation assays. 34H7::Nb5-5LL second-generation assay measurements across a multi-cancer cohort. (CREDIT: Cancer Discovery)

“Our results bolster the emerging idea that ORF1p expression is a ‘hallmark of cancer’ expressed starting early in the disease process,” Taylor explained. The exclusivity of ORF1p to cancerous tissues, as opposed to its non-detection in normal tissues, sets it apart from other biomarkers, reinforcing its specificity and importance in cancer diagnostics.

Despite the promise it holds, the authors recognize the limitations of their study. The test doesn’t divulge critical details such as the precise location of cancerous tissues within the body, nor is it universally successful in pinpointing all cancer types and subtypes. However, the vision for this tool extends beyond standalone application. It is perceived as a complementary instrument that, when combined with other diagnostic tests, could substantially refine early detection protocols and facilitate real-time monitoring of patient responses to cancer therapies, enabling timely therapeutic adjustments.

ORF1p is an early predictor of response in 19 gastroesophageal patients undergoing chemo/chemoradiotherapy. a, Plasma ORF1p as measured by all three second-generation Simoa assays before and during/post treatment; Responders and Non-Responders were characterized by post-therapy, pre-surgery imaging; p

Reflecting on the test’s specific yet limited standalone diagnostic capacity, Walt remarked, “The test is very specific, but it doesn’t tell us enough information to be used in a vacuum. It’s exciting to see the early success of this ultrasensitive assessment tool, but there is more work to be done.”

The path ahead is laden with investigative endeavors. The research team, comprising pathologists and clinicians, is poised to evaluate the test’s precision across broader trial groups and varied patient demographics. A critical part of their future exploration is understanding the utility of ORF1p biomarker assessment in practical patient care and determining its potential role in stratifying cancer risk among patients.

The ingenuity of the study is rooted in the use of a cutting-edge technology known as Single Molecule Array (SIMOA), pioneered by the Walt lab. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

“We’ve known since the 1980s that transposable elements were active in some cancers, and nearly 10 years ago we reported that ORF1p was a pervasive cancer biomarker, but, until now, we haven’t had the ability to detect it in blood tests,” said Kathleen Burns, M.D., Ph.D., Chair of the Department of Pathology at Dana-Farber. “Having a technology capable of detecting ORF1p in blood opens so many possibilities for clinical applications. We were fortunate to assemble this tremendous team to push the limits of these assays and obtain and test these precious samples. There’s a lot of excitement as our work continues.”

In essence, this pioneering study ushers in a new era of hope and precision in cancer diagnostics. While the journey to universal, foolproof cancer detection continues, this innovative blood test stands as a monumental step forward, lighting the path toward more timely, accurate, and cost-effective cancer care, ultimately aiming to save countless lives in the process.

Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.

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Joseph Shavit
Joseph ShavitSpace, Technology and Medical News Writer
Joseph Shavit is the head science news writer with a passion for communicating complex scientific discoveries to a broad audience. With a strong background in both science, business, product management, media leadership and entrepreneurship, Joseph possesses the unique ability to bridge the gap between business and technology, making intricate scientific concepts accessible and engaging to readers of all backgrounds.