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Why detecting cancer will soon be as easy as testing malaria

Sunday January 21 2018

Detecting cancer

Detecting cancer will soon be as easy as diagnosing malaria through a single blood test, results from a preliminary trial suggest. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Detecting cancer will soon be as easy as diagnosing malaria through a single blood test, results from a preliminary trial suggest.

This, according to cancer experts, will boost efforts to fight the disease in the country which records more than 40,000 new cases every year.

The cost of treating cancer in the country has been one of the most burdening and traumatising to patients. It is currently the third leading cause of death in Kenya according to the Economic Survey 2017.

But with the new study whose findings will be available in the next three to five years, the figures are bound to change and the cost reduced since it is designed to arrest cancer early and save lives.

The study done by researchers from Johns Hopkins University with collaboration from Australian scientists at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute will be used to detect the presence of eight common cancers by sensing tiny amounts of DNA and proteins released into the bloodstream from cancer cells.

The eight types include ovarian, liver, stomach, pancreatic, oesophageal, bowel, lung and breast cancers.



Apart from detecting cancer in the blood, the study will also improve cancer treatment management, monitoring treatment response and screen for recurrence in real time.

The study dubbed CancerSEEK has been able to detect disease in about 70 per cent of more than 1,000 people who had already been diagnosed with cancer.

The cost of CancerSEEK is less than Sh50,000 ($500) per patient.

The method will also be able to detect cancerous activity which is impossible to scan or screen through conventional techniques like PET-CT scans, MRI scans or Ultrasounds.

Conventional techniques take more than three months to detect whether or not the treatment is working or not, precious time that cancer exploits to grow and become more resistant, more aggressive while with CancerSEEK the detection is instant.


The test known as a liquid biopsy can be performed without even knowing whether a patient has cancer or not.

It allows for early diagnosis and better chances of a cure. It is different from other standard biopsies where a doctor has to prick a solid tumour using a needle to confirm a cancer diagnosis.

The researchers hope that their work could eventually lead to a test that is simpler and cheaper than the intensive sequencing involved in some other liquid biopsies.

“They end up with a performance that is similar to other approaches, but with what looks to be a much more cost-effective approach,” says Dr Nitzan Rosenfeld, a cancer researcher at the University of Cambridge, UK.

The findings of the study were published last week in the Science Journal. According to Dr Rosenfeld, they wanted to develop a test that could detect cancers early, when they are easier to treat.

Replace biopsies

“With the test, it can eliminate the need for repetitive costly, inaccessible, painful biopsies and is reliable to determine the presence, recurrence and therapy response in suspected or under treatment cancer patients,” he said.


The trial was done on 1,005 patients with the eight common cancers that had not yet spread to other tissues.

Individuals whose cancer had spread to other parts of the body were expelled so that they could focus on early stages of the disease.

According to the findings, the test found 70 per cent of the cancers. It detected 98 per cent of ovarian cancers, but only 33 per cent of breast cancer cases.

It was able to pinpoint the organ in which the disease had taken root in about 63 per cent of patients. But the test performed better on later-stage cancers than on earlier ones, finding 78 per cent of stage III disease versus 43 per cent of stage I tumours.

In Kenya, cancer is currently diagnosed through screening but most Kenyans fail to undergo checkups due to cost constraints.

Dr Julius Onyango, western Kenya-based Oncologist, said since the test is going to detect cancer in the blood, this is the news that Kenyans need since most of the cancer cases in the country are diagnosed late.

“Five years is not far if this test works, then we are safe. These diagnostic advancements hold immense promise to reduce Kenya’s cancer mortality because the earlier it is detected the high chance of survival,” he said.


According to Dr Onyango, more Kenyans are dying because they do not want to go to the hospitals for checkups yet between 30 and 50 per cent of all cancers can be treated.

According to Economic Survey 2017, more than 27,000 deaths are recorded in the country per year. About 60 per cent of Kenyans affected by cancer are younger than 70 years old.

Leading cancer in women is that of the breast with over 34 per 100,000 deaths, followed by cervical with 25 per 100,000. In men, the prostate is leading with 17 per 100,000 followed by oesophageal with 9 per 100,000.

The high cost of treatment, lack of awareness and high poverty index has led to over 70-80 per cent diagnosed in late stages.

With the promising findings, researchers said more was needed to assess the test’s effectiveness at detecting early-stage cancers.

“The numbers are high enough to warrant further studies. Even if you only catch half of the cancers, that’s great. What’s unclear, however, is whether CancerSEEK is able to detect undiagnosed cancers,” said Dr Rosenfeld

Large trials are now under way in the US, with CancerSEEK testing being offered to thousands of healthy people. Cancer incidence and outcomes in these people will be compared to a control group that does not have to test.