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A Floating Autobiography of a Cancer

I’ve written a feature for Nature News about a new way of monitoring and studying cancer, by tracking fragments of DNA that are released by tumours and travel around in the blood. This “circulating tumour DNA” can give away the presence and progress of a tumour. It also allows clinicians to study a cancer patient’s mutations, and potentially better tailor their treatments, without having to perform invasive (and often uninformative) biopsies.
Here’s a teaser; head over to Nature for the full story.

When cancer cells rupture and die, they release their contents, including circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA): genome fragments that float freely through the bloodstream. Debris from normal cells is normally mopped up and destroyed by ‘cleaning cells’ such as macrophages, but tumours are so large and their cells multiply so quickly that the cleaners cannot cope completely.

By developing and refining techniques for measuring and sequencing tumour DNA in the bloodstream, scientists are turning vials of blood into ‘liquid biopsies’ — portraits of a cancer that are much more comprehensive than the keyhole peeps that conventional biopsies provide. Taken over time, such blood samples would show clinicians whether treatments are working and whether tumours are evolving resistance.

As ever, there are caveats. Levels of ctDNA vary a lot from person to person and can be hard to detect, especially for small tumours in their early stages. And most studies so far have dealt with only handfuls or dozens of patients, with just a few types of cancer. Although the results are promising, they must be validated in larger studies before it will be clear whether ctDNA truly offers an accurate view — and, more importantly, whether it can save or improve lives. “Just monitoring your tumour isn’t good enough,” says Luis Diaz, an oncologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. “The challenge that we face is finding true utility.”

If researchers can clear those hurdles, liquid biopsies could help clinicians to make better choices for treatment and to adjust those decisions as conditions change, says Victor Velculescu, a genetic oncologist at Johns Hopkins. Moreover, the work might provide new therapeutic targets. “It will help bring personalized medicine to reality,” says Velculescu. “It’s a game-changer.”

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