A simple blood test could hold the key to detecting cancer relapses, subsequently saving thousands of lives a year, according to new research.
The study - undertaken by scientists at the Institute of Cancer Research in London - reveals that traces of breast cancer were found in some participants eight months before doctors would have detected the disease's return.
At the moment, surgery is the most common treatment of cancer, but it isn't always successful as the tumour may have already spread to another part of the body. This means that the operation may not remove all of the malignancy.
In the study, which was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, a total of 55 patients who were at a high risk of relapsing were followed by scientists.
Researchers also analysed the mutated DNA of each tumour and then searched the blood for matching mutations
Of the 15 women who relapsed and were involved in the research, the blood test detected the cancer in 12 cases. The other three had cancer that spread to the brain, where the protective blood-brain barrier stopped fragments of the cancer entering the bloodstream.
The test detected cancerous DNA in just one person who did not go on to relapse.
While this indicates the value and success of the test, experts claim that there is still a long way to go before it could be used routinely in hospitals. Earlier detection would mean patients could quickly start treatments like chemotherapy, improving the odds of survival.
Dr Nicholas Turner, part of the research team, told the BBC News website: "The key question is are we identifying that these women are at risk of relapse early enough that we could give treatments that could prevent the relapse?
"That is unknown from this research and we hope to address it in future studies. [But] we're really talking about a principle that could potentially be applied to any cancer that has gone through initial treatment for which there's a risk of relapse in the future."
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