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World-first liquid biopsy for blood cancers to improve treatment

March 20, 2017

A simple blood test to monitor blood cancers will soon be available to more than 12,000 Australians diagnosed with blood cancers each year.

Researchers at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne have recently developed the world-first ‘liquid biopsy’, which promises a new era of less invasive, more precise and effective management of blood cancers, in place of painful bone marrow or lymph node biopsies.

Published this month in both Nature Communications and Blood, the study shows how liquid biopsies can be applied in clinical cases of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia and myelodysplastic syndromes.

The liquid biopsy, developed by Associate Professor Sarah-Jane Dawson and Professor Mark Dawson, monitors tiny fragments of DNA emitted from cancer cells into the blood stream, called circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA).

Unlike traditional biopsies, ctDNA tests:

  • track disease status throughout the body
  • can be used at any time over the course of cancer treatment
  • enable rapid adjustments if a patient relapses or fails to respond to a particular therapy.

A/Professor Sarah-Jane Dawson has helped pioneer the development of ctDNA tests for solid tumours in breast and other cancer types, which now guide the treatment of some 500 patients who are part of her research program.

A/Professor Dawson says this world-first ctDNA test for blood cancers will also help to more rapidly advance the availability of new precision medicines and targeted therapies as these are developed.

“Not only does this new test promise clinicians and patients a more timely and accurate understanding of whether a cancer treatment is working, it gives scientists the ability to quickly and effectively evaluate how clinical trial patients are responding to new life-saving therapies.”

Improved blood cancer test accuracy

Professor Mark Dawson says the liquid biopsy also addresses one of the major limitations of the current approach to managing blood cancers.

“We know that a single tissue biopsy from the bone marrow or lymph node does not accurately reflect the composition of the whole tumour as there is significant variation – so called intra-tumour heterogeneity – that exists between the individual cells that make up any cancer.”

“Because cancer cells from all disease sites within the body shed their DNA into the bloodstream, we found that ctDNA collected from a routine blood sample more accurately mirrors the disease across all parts of the body.”

“This ctDNA test for blood cancer therefore provides a much more comprehensive picture of how a patient is responding to their treatment,” Professor Dawson said.

The ctDNA tests from Peter Mac will be available to patients within Australia from late 2017 and are expected to become a standard clinical tool in the near future.

This research was supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia; Leukaemia and Lymphoma Society USA; Victorian Cancer Agency; National Breast Cancer Foundation; Leukaemia Foundation Australia; Snowdome Foundation; and the Haematology Society of Australia and New Zealand. Core technologies for the research are supported by the Australian Cancer Research Foundation and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

The news article was first published on the Peter Mac website. Image courtesy of Peter Mac.

The Australian Cancer Research Foundation (ACRF) has supported Peter Mac by providing three grants, totalling AUD $7 million towards cutting edge cancer research equipment and technology. In 2016, ACRF awarded a $2 million grant to a Peter Mac-led consortium of members of the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre to establish the ACRF Tumour Heterogeneity Program. The new program will be led by A/Professor Sarah-Jane Dawson.

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