Singapore researchers close in on 'liquid biopsy' to track cancer progress, treatment

Researchers at the National University of Singapore say they are on the verge of having a blood test capable of keeping track of any cancer's development and the effectiveness of treatments for it as often as month to month.

Lim Chwee Teck

The problem the scientists face, said one of the lead authors of the study published in the journal Oncotarget, is that circulating tumor cells (CTC) they used for their procedure are hard to find, like finding a needle in a haystack, and difficult to extract.

Lim Chwee Teck, of the Mechanobiology Institute, Singapore, said that despite their rarity, being able to find, capture and culture the CTCs was a "big step forward" in liquid biopsy, diagnosis and treatment. He also said the research indicated it is possible to do all the work through a blood test.

Lee Soo Chin, with the National University Cancer Institute, Singapore, said that by using such a test to follow the status of the changing cancer, physicians would be able to decide which drug was most suitable for that particular case. He said the test likely would take about a month, two weeks for culturing the CTC and another two weeks to screen the drugs used.

The procedure would be an improvement on today's methods of determining the progress of a cancer and the impact of treatment. The new work also indicates that samples from early-stage breast cancer patients could be screened, making it possible to predict progression of the cancer and its response to particular drugs. And, the method could be used for lung and kidney cancers as well.

But the researchers who did the Oncotarget study used samples from patients with bowel cancer, Singapore's most common type of the disease. After the difficult first step of isolating and collecting the CTCs, the team was able to identify two specific mutations associated with that type of cancer, the study said.

The rest of the complex procedure was relatively easy to conduct, enabling the team to do its analyses more simply and quickly than the biopsy and other procedures. It also offered the additional benefit of being more sensitive than other methods, considered an important clinical step in diagnosis and treatment.

The next step for the team, which also included A*STAR and the National University of Singapore and institutes associated with it, is to test the work in clinical trials.

- here's the release from NUS
- and one from A-Star