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Cancer researchers near testing breakthrough

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A simple blood test has been developed that can check for eight common cancer types should cost below $500 when it is made available, according to life reinsurer.

The US-based Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Centre developed the CancerSEEK test to evaluate levels of eight proteins and the presence of mutations in 2001 genomic positions.

Researchers have also created a machine-learning algorithm combining gender, biomarkers and the blood test result to predict the cancer’s location.

Gen Re Life Australia MD Andres Webersinke estimates the test will cost below $US500 ($642) initially, and he expects that figure to fall.

“Early detection is key to successful treatment of cancer,” he said.

“Sampling blood to pinpoint circulating proteins and DNA from a developing tumour, as CancerSEEK does, could one day replace traditional mammography and colonoscopy screening or the ‘wait-and-see’ approach to cancer detection.”

He says a key aim of cancer research is to develop a non-invasive test that is easily repeated and can detect cancer with a high degree of certainty. It also needs to be highly specific to minimise false results, and even identify the organ affected by cancer.

He says the new test meets the first three criteria, but produces better detection for some cancers than others.

A trial with 1000 patients showed detection rates ranging between 33% for breast cancer and 98% for ovarian and liver cancers.

Males would benefit more than females, due to the types of cancer it is detecting.

“As promising as these research results may seem, limitations remain,” Mr Webersinke said.

“In a true screening setting the patients would have less advanced disease development – the study population had known cancer and symptoms. Accordingly, the detection rate in a population cohort… would be lower than reported in the study.

“While the study group was not small, it wasn’t large enough for a robust check of sensitivity and specificity.”

Mr Webersinke says insurers need not fear a sudden influx of cancer diagnoses, because there is more research to be done.

But he notes: “Offering a traditional critical illness product with a 100% payout upon diagnosis alone becomes increasingly unviable and unmanageable, even in markets where premium rates can be adjusted.”