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Clinical Trial Shows New Laboratory Developed Blood Test 83% Effective at Detecting Colorectal Cancer

Accurate blood-based clinical laboratory testing for cancer promises to encourage more people to undergo early screening for deadly diseases

One holy grail in diagnostics is to develop less-invasive specimen types when screening or testing for different cancers. This is the motivation behind the creation of a new assay for colorectal (colon) cancer that uses a blood sample and that could be offered by clinical laboratories. The data on this assay and its performance was featured in a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine(NEJM).

The company developing this new test recognized that more than 50,000 people will die in 2024 from colon cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. That’s primarily because people do not like colonoscopies even though the procedure can detect cancer in its early stages. Similarly, patients tend to find collecting their own fecal samples for colon cancer screening tests to be unpleasant.

But the clinical laboratory blood test for cancer screening developed by Guardant Health may make diagnosing the deadly disease less invasive and save lives. The test “detects 83% of people with colorectal cancer with specificity of 90%,” a company press release noted.

“Early detection could prevent more than 90% of colorectal cancer-related deaths, yet more than one third of the screening-eligible population is not up to date with screening despite multiple available tests. A blood-based test has the potential to improve screening adherence, detect colorectal cancer earlier, and reduce colorectal cancer-related mortality,” the study authors wrote in the NEJM.

As noted above, this is the latest example of test developers working to develop clinical laboratory tests that are less invasive for patients, while equaling or exceeding the sensitivity and specificity of existing diagnostic assays for certain health conditions.

“I do think having a blood draw versus undergoing an invasive test will reach more people, My hope is that with more tools we can reach more people,” Barbara H. Jung, MD (above), President of the American Gastroenterological Association, told NPR. Clinical laboratory blood tests for cancer may encourage people who do not like colonoscopies to get regular screening. (Photo copyright: American Gastroenterology Association.)

Developing the Shield Blood Test

Colorectal cancer is the “third most common cancer among men and women in the US,” according to the American Gastrological Association (AGA). And yet, millions of people do not get regular screening for the disease.

To prove their Shield blood test, Guardant Health, a precision oncology company based in Redwood City, Calif., enrolled more than 20,000 patients between the ages of 45-84 from across the US in a prospective, multi-site registrational study called ECLIPSE (Evaluation of ctDNA LUNAR Assay In an Average Patient Screening Episode).

“We assessed the performance characteristics of a cell-free DNA (cfDNA) blood-based test in a population eligible for colorectal cancer screening. The coprimary outcomes were sensitivity for colorectal cancer and specificity for advanced neoplasia (colorectal cancer or advanced precancerous lesions) relative to screening colonoscopy. The secondary outcome was sensitivity to detect advanced precancerous lesions,” the study authors wrote in the NEJM.

In March, Guardant completed clinical trials of its Shield blood test for detecting colorectal cancer (CRC) in men and women. According to the company press release, the test demonstrated:

  • 83% sensitivity in detecting individuals with CRC.
  • 88% sensitivity in detecting pathology-confirmed Stages I-III.

Additionally, the Shield test showed sensitivity by stage of:

  • 65% for pathology-confirmed Stage I,
  • 55% for clinical Stage I,
  • 100% for Stage II, and
  • 100% for Stage III.

“The results of the study are a promising step toward developing more convenient tools to detect colorectal cancer early while it is more easily treated,” said molecular biologist and gastroenterologist William M. Grady, MD, Medical Director, Gastrointestinal Cancer Prevention Program at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center and corresponding author of the ECLIPSE study in the press release. “The test, which has an accuracy rate for colon cancer detection similar to stool tests used for early detection of cancer, could offer an alternative for patients who may otherwise decline current screening options.”

Are Colonoscopies Still Needed?

“More than three out of four Americans who die from colorectal cancer are not up to date with their recommended screening, highlighting the need for a more convenient and less invasive screening method that can overcome barriers associated with traditional options,” Daniel Chung, MD, gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, said in the Guardant press release.

Barbara H. Jung, MD, President of the American Gastroenterological Association, says that even if Guardant’s Shield test makes it to the public the “dreaded colonoscopy” will still be needed because the procedure is used to locate and test polyps. “And when you find those you can also remove them, which in turn prevents the cancer from forming,” she told NPR.

There is hope that less invasive clinical laboratory testing will encourage more individuals to get screened for cancer earlier and regularly, and that the shift will result in a reduction in cancer rates.

“Colorectal cancer is highly treatable if caught in the early stages,” said Chris Evans, President of the Colon Cancer Coalition, in the Guardant press release.

Guardant Health’s ECLIPSE study is a prime example of the push clinical laboratory test developers are making to create user-friendly test options that make it easier for patients to follow through with regular screening for early detection of diseases. It echoes a larger effort in the medical community to think outside the box and come up with creative solutions to reach wider audiences in the name of prevention.

—Kristin Althea O’Connor

Related Information:

Guardant Health ECLIPSE Study Data Demonstrating Efficacy of Shield Blood-based Test for Colorectal Cancer Screening to be Published in The New England Journal of Medicine

A Cell-free DNA Blood-Based Test for Colorectal Cancer Screening

Guardant Health Announces Positive Results from Pivotal ECLIPSE Study Evaluating a Blood Test for the Detection of Colorectal Cancer

A Simple Blood Test Can Detect Colorectal Cancer Early, Study Finds

Key Statistics for Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal Cancer Facts and Statistics

Cancer Stat Facts: Colorectal Cancer

Experimental Low-Cost Blood Test Can Detect Multiple Cancers, Researchers Say

Test uses a new ultrasensitive immunoassay to detect a known clinical laboratory diagnostic protein biomarker for many common cancers

Researchers from Mass General Brigham, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard University’s Wyss Institute and other institutions around the world have reportedly developed a simple clinical laboratory blood test that can detect a common protein biomarker associated with multiple types of cancer, including colorectal, gastroesophageal, and ovarian cancers.

Best of all, the researchers say the test could provide an inexpensive means of early diagnosis. This assay could also be used to monitor how well patients respond to cancer therapy, according to a news release.

The test, which is still in experimental stages, detects the presence of LINE-1 ORF1p, a protein expressed in many common cancers, as well as high-risk precursors, while having “negligible expression in normal tissues,” the researchers wrote in a paper they published in Cancer Discovery titled, “Ultrasensitive Detection of Circulating LINE-1 ORF1p as a Specific Multicancer Biomarker.”

The protein had previously been identified as a promising biomarker and is readily detectable in tumor tissue, they wrote. However, it is found in extremely low concentrations in blood plasma and is “well below detection limits of conventional clinical laboratory methods,” they noted.

To overcome that obstacle, they employed an ultra-sensitive immunoassay known as a Simoa (Single-Molecule Array), an immunoassay platform for measuring fluid biomarkers.

“We were shocked by how well this test worked in detecting the biomarker’s expression across cancer types,” said lead study author gastroenterologist Martin Taylor, MD, PhD, Instructor in Pathology, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, in the press release. “It’s created more questions for us to explore and sparked interest among collaborators across many institutions.”

Kathleen Burns, MD, PhD

“We’ve known since the 1980s that transposable elements were active in some cancers, and nearly 10 years ago we reported that ORF1p was a pervasive cancer biomarker, but, until now, we haven’t had the ability to detect it in blood tests,” said pathologist and study co-author Kathleen Burns, MD, PhD (above), Chair of the Department of Pathology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and a Professor of Pathology at Harvard Medical School, in a press release. “Having a technology capable of detecting ORF1p in blood opens so many possibilities for clinical applications.” Clinical laboratories may soon have a new blood test to detect multiple types of cancer. (Photo copyright: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.)

Simoa’s Advantages

In their press release, the researchers described ORF1p as “a hallmark of many cancers, particularly p53-deficient epithelial cancers,” a category that includes lung, breast, prostate, uterine, pancreatic, and head and neck cancers in addition to the cancers noted above.

“Pervasive expression of ORF1p in carcinomas, and the lack of expression in normal tissues, makes ORF1p unlike other protein biomarkers which have normal expression levels,” Taylor said in the press release. “This unique biology makes it highly specific.”

Simoa was developed at the laboratory of study co-author David R. Walt, PhD, the Hansjörg Wyss Professor of Bioinspired Engineering at Harvard Medical School, and Professor of Pathology at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

The Simoa technology “enables 100- to 1,000-fold improvements in sensitivity over conventional enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) techniques, thus opening the window to measuring proteins at concentrations that have never been detected before in various biological fluids such as plasma or saliva,” according to the Walt Lab website.

Simoa assays take less than two hours to run and require less than $3 in consumables. They are “simple to perform, scalable, and have clinical-grade coefficients of variation,” the researchers wrote.

Study Results

Using the first generation of the ORF1p Simoa assay, the researchers tested blood samples of patients with a variety of cancers along with 406 individuals, regarded as healthy, who served as controls. The test proved to be most effective among patients with colorectal and ovarian cancer, finding detectable levels of ORF1p in 58% of former and 71% of the latter. Detectable levels were found in patients with advanced-stage as well as early-stage disease, the researchers wrote in Cancer Discovery.

Among the 406 healthy controls, the test found detectable levels of ORF1p in only five. However, the control with the highest detectable levels, regarded as healthy when donating blood, “was six months later found to have prostate cancer and 19 months later found to have lymphoma,” the researchers wrote.

They later reengineered the Simoa assay to increase its sensitivity, resulting in improved detection of the protein in blood samples from patients with colorectal, gastroesophageal, ovarian, uterine, and breast cancers.

The researchers also employed the test on samples from 19 patients with gastroesophageal cancer to gauge its utility for monitoring therapeutic response. Although this was a small sample, they found that among 13 patients who had responded to therapy, “circulating ORF1p dropped to undetectable levels at follow-up sampling.”

“More Work to Be Done”

The Simoa assay has limitations, the researchers acknowledged. It doesn’t identify the location of cancers, and it “isn’t successful in identifying all cancers and their subtypes,” the press release stated, adding that the test will likely be used in conjunction with other early-detection approaches. The researchers also said they want to gauge the test’s accuracy in larger cohorts.

“The test is very specific, but it doesn’t tell us enough information to be used in a vacuum,” Walt said in the news release. “It’s exciting to see the early success of this ultrasensitive assessment tool, but there is more work to be done.”

More studies will be needed to valid these findings. That this promising new multi-cancer immunoassay is based on a clinical laboratory blood sample means its less invasive and less painful for patients. It’s a good example of an assay that takes a proteomic approach looking for protein cancer biomarkers rather than the genetic approach looking for molecular DNA/RNA biomarkers of cancer.

—Stephen Beale

Related Information:

Ultrasensitive Blood Test Detects ‘Pan-Cancer’ Biomarker

New Blood Test Could Offer Earlier Detection of Common Deadly Cancers

Ultrasensitive Detection of Circulating LINE-1 ORF1p as a Specific Multicancer Biomarker

Noninvasive and Multicancer Biomarkers: The Promise of LINE-1 Retrotransposons

LINE-1-ORF1p Is a Promising Biomarker for Early Cancer Detection, But More Research Is Needed

‘Pan-Cancer’ Found in Highly Sensitive Blood Test

University of Oslo Research Study Suggests Most Cancer Screenings Do Not Prolong Lives

Norwegian researchers reviewed large clinical trials of six common cancer screenings, including clinical laboratory tests, but some experts question the findings

Cancer screenings are a critical tool for diagnosis and treatment. But how much do they actually extend the lives of patients? According to researchers at the University of Oslo in Norway, not by much. They recently conducted a review and meta-analysis of 18 long-term clinical trials, five of the six most commonly used types of cancer screening—including two clinical laboratory tests—and found that with few exceptions, the screenings did not significantly extend lifespans.

The 18 long-term clinical trials included in the study were randomized trials that collectively included a total of 2.1 million participants. Median follow-up periods of 10 to 15 years were used to gauge estimated lifetime gain and mortality.

The researchers published their findings in JAMA Internal Medicine titled, “Estimated Lifetime Gained with Cancer Screening Tests: A Meta-analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials.”

“The findings of this meta-analysis suggest that current evidence does not substantiate the claim that common cancer screening tests save lives by extending lifetime, except possibly for colorectal cancer screening with sigmoidoscopy,” the researchers wrote in their published paper.

The researchers noted, however, that their analysis does not suggest all screenings should be abandoned. They also acknowledged that some lives are saved by screenings.

“Without screening, these patients may have died of cancer because it would have been detected at a later, incurable stage,” the scientists wrote, MedPage Today reported. “Thus, these patients experience a gain in lifetime.”

Still, some independent experts questioned the validity of the findings.

Gastroenterologist Michael Bretthauer, MD, PhD (above), a professor at the University of Oslo in Norway led the research into cancer screenings. In their JAMA Internal Medicine paper, he and his team wrote, “The findings of this meta-analysis suggest that colorectal cancer screening with sigmoidoscopy may extend life by approximately three months; lifetime gain for other screening tests appears to be unlikely or uncertain.” How their findings might affect clinical laboratory and anatomic pathology screening for cancer remains to be seen. (Photo copyright: University of Oslo.)

Pros and Cons of Cancer Screening

The clinical trials, according to MedPage Today and Oncology Nursing News covered the following tests:

  • Mammography screening for breast cancer (two trials).
  • Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing for prostate cancer (four trials).
  • Computed tomography (CT) screening for lung cancer in smokers and former smokers (three trials).
  • Colonoscopy for colorectal cancer (one trial).
  • Sigmoidoscopy for colorectal cancer (four trials).
  • Fecal occult blood (FOB) testing for colorectal cancer (four trials).

As reported in these trials, “colorectal cancer screening with sigmoidoscopy prolonged lifetime by 110 days, while fecal testing and mammography screening did not prolong life,” the researchers wrote. “An extension of 37 days was noted for prostate cancer screening with prostate-specific antigen testing and 107 days with lung cancer screening using computed tomography, but estimates are uncertain.”

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends certain types of screening tests to detect cancers and pre-cancers before they can spread, thus improving the chances for survival.

The ACS advises screenings for breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and cervical cancer regardless of whether the individual is considered high risk. Lung cancer screenings are advised for people with a history of smoking. Men who are 45 to 50 or older should discuss the pros and cons of prostate cancer screening with their healthcare providers, the ACS states.

A CNN report about the University of Oslo study noted that the benefits and drawbacks of cancer screening have long been well known to doctors.

“Some positive screening results are false positives, which can lead to unnecessary anxiety as well as additional screening that can be expensive,” CNN reported. “Tests can also give a false negative and thus a false sense of security. Sometimes too, treatment can be unnecessary, resulting in a net harm rather than a net benefit, studies show.”

In their JAMA paper, the University of Oslo researchers wrote, “The critical question is whether the benefits for the few are sufficiently large to warrant the associated harms for many. It is entirely possible that multicancer detection blood tests do save lives and warrant the attendant costs and harms. But we will never know unless we ask,” CNN reported.

Hidden Impact on Cancer Mortality

ACS Chief Scientific Officer William Dahut, MD, told CNN that screenings may have an impact on cancer mortality in ways that might not be apparent from randomized trials. He noted that there’s been a decline in deaths from cervical cancer and prostate cancer since doctors began advising routine testing.

“Cancer screening was never really designed to increase longevity,” Dahut said. “Screenings are really designed to decrease premature deaths from cancer.” For example, “if a person’s life expectancy at birth was 80, a cancer screening may prevent their premature death at 65, but it wouldn’t necessarily mean they’d live to be 90 instead of the predicted 80,” CNN reported.

Dahut told CNN that fully assessing the impact of cancer screenings on life expectancy would require a clinical trial larger than those in the new study, and one that followed patients “for a very long time.”

Others Question the OSLO University Findings

Another expert who questioned the findings was Stephen W. Duffy, MSc, Professor of Cancer Screening at the Queen Mary University of London.

“From its title, one would have expected this paper to be based on analysis of individual lifetime data. However, it is not,” he wrote in a compilation of expert commentary from the UK’s Science Media Center. “The paper’s conclusions are based on arithmetic manipulation of relative rates of all-cause mortality in some of the screening trials. It is therefore difficult to give credence to the claim that screening largely does not extend expected lifetime.”

He also questioned the inclusion of one particular trial in the University of Oslo study—the Canadian National Breast Screening Study—“as there is now public domain evidence of subversion of the randomization in this trial,” he added.

Another expert, Leigh Jackson, PhD, of the University of Exeter in the UK, described the University of Oslo study as “methodologically sound with some limitations which the authors clearly state.”

But he observed that “the focus on 2.1 million individuals is slightly misleading. The study considered many different screening tests and 2.1 million was indeed the total number of included patients, however, no calculation included that many people.”

Jackson also characterized the length of follow-up as a limitation. “This may have limited the amount of data included and also not considering longer follow-up may tend to underestimate the effects of screening,” he said.

This published study—along with the range of credible criticisms offered by other scientists—demonstrates how analysis of huge volumes of data is making it possible to tease out useful new insights. Clinical laboratory managers and pathologists can expect to see other examples of researchers assembling large quantities of data across different areas of medicine. This huge pools of data will be analyzed to determine the effectiveness of many medical procedures that have been performed for years with a belief that they are helpful.

—Stephen Beale

Related Information:

Estimated Lifetime Gained with Cancer Screening Tests: A Meta-analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials

The Future of Cancer Screening—Guided without Conflicts of Interest

Most Cancer Screenings Don’t Extend Life, Study Finds, but Don’t Cancel That Appointment

Does Cancer Screening Actually Extend Lives?

Cancer Screening May Not Extend Patients’ Life Spans

Opinion: Cancer Screenings, Although Not Perfect, Remain Valuable Expert Reaction to Study Estimating Lifetime Gained with Cancer Screening Tests

Might Bacteria be Used to Identify Cancer Cells? Some Researchers Using Synthetic Biology and Genetic Engineering Techniques Say ‘Yes’

Cellular healthcare is an approach that goes beyond clinical laboratory testing to identify the location of specific cancer cells and aid in treatment decisions

Advances in synthetic biology and genetic engineering are leading to development of bacterial biosensors that could eventually aid pathologists and clinical laboratories in diagnosis of many types of cancers.

One recent example comes from researchers at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) who worked with colleagues in Australia to engineer bacteria that work as “capture agents” and bind to tumorous material.

The resulting “bacterial biosensors” go on a “sort of molecular manhunt” to find and capture tumor DNA with mutations in the Kirsten Rat Sarcoma virus (KRAS) gene, according to an article published by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) titled, “Could Bacteria Help Find Cancer?

The KRAS gene is associated with colorectal cancer. The researchers named their development the Cellular Assay for Targeted CRISPR-discriminated Horizontal gene transfer (CATCH). 

CATCH successfully detected cancer in the colons of mice. The researchers believe it could be used to diagnose cancers, as well as infections and other diseases, in humans as well, according to a UCSD news release.

The researchers published their proof-of-concept findings in the journal Science titled, “Engineered Bacteria Detect Tumor DNA.”

Daniel Worthley, PhD

“If bacteria can take up DNA, and cancer is defined genetically by a change in its DNA, then, theoretically, bacteria could be engineered to detect cancer,” gastroenterologist Daniel Worthley, PhD, a cancer researcher at Colonoscopy Clinic in Brisbane, Australia, told MedicalResearch.com. This research could eventually provide clinical laboratories and anatomic pathologists with new tools to use in diagnosing certain types of cancer. (Photo copyright: Colonoscopy Clinic.)

Tapping Bacteria’s Natural Competence

In their Science paper, the researchers acknowledged other synthetic biology achievements in cellular biosensors aimed at human disease. But they noted that more can be done by leveraging the “natural competence” skill of bacteria. 

“Biosensors have not yet been engineered to detect specific extracellular DNA sequences and mutations. Here, we engineered naturally competent Acinetobacter baylyi (A. baylyi) to detect donor DNA from the genomes of colorectal cancer cells, organoids, and tumors,” they wrote.

“Many bacteria can take up DNA from their environment, a skill known as natural competence,” said Rob Cooper, PhD, co-first author of the study and a scientist at US San Diego’s Synthetic Biology Institute, in the news release. A. baylyi is a type of bacteria renowned for success in doing just that, the NCI article pointed out. 

CRISPR Aids CATCH Development

Inside Precision Medicine shared these steps toward creation of the CATCH technique:

  • Researchers engineered bacteria using CRISPR.
  • This enabled them to explore “free-floating DNA sequences on a genomic level.”
  • Those sequences were compared to “known cancer DNA sequences.”
  • A. baylyi (genetically modified) was tested on its ability to detect “mutated and healthy KRAS DNA.”
  • Only bacteria that had “taken up mutated copies of KRAS … would survive treatment with a specific drug.”

“It was incredible when I saw the bacteria that had taken up the tumor DNA under the microscope. The mice with tumors grew green bacterial colonies that had acquired the ability to be grown on antibiotic plates,” said Josephine Wright, PhD, Senior Research Fellow, Gut Cancer Group, South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI), in the news release. 

Detecting DNA from Cancer Cells In Vitro and in Mice

Findings in vitro and in mice include the following:

  • The engineered bacteria enabled detection of DNA with KRAS G12D from colorectal cancer cells made in the lab, NCI reported.
  • When mice were injected with colorectal cancer cells, the researchers’ technology found tumor DNA, Engadget reported.

The study adds to existing knowledge of horizontal gene transfer from bacteria to bacteria, according to UCSD.

“We observed horizontal gene transfer from the tumor to the sensor bacteria in our mouse model of colorectal cancer. This cellular assay for targeted, CRISPR-discriminated horizontal gene transfer (CATCH) enables the biodetection of specific cell-free DNA,” the authors wrote in Science.

“Colorectal cancer seemed a logical proof of concept as the colorectal lumen is full of microbes and, in the setting of cancer, full of tumor DNA,” gastroenterologist Daniel Worthley, PhD, a cancer researcher at Colonoscopy Clinic in Brisbane, Australia, told MedicalResearch.com.

Finding More Cancers and Treatment

More research is needed before CATCH is used in clinical settings. The scientists are reportedly planning on adapting CATCH to multiple bacteria that can locate other cancers and infections.

“The most exciting aspect of cellular healthcare … is not in the mere detection of disease. A laboratory can do that,” wrote Worthley in The Conversation. “But what a laboratory cannot do is pair the detection of disease (a diagnosis) with the cells actually responding to the disease [and] with appropriate treatment.

“This means biosensors can be programmed so that a disease signal—in this case, a specific sequence of cell-free DNA—could trigger a specific biological therapy, directly at the spot where the disease is detected in real time,” he added.

Clinical laboratory scientists, pathologists, and microbiologists may want to stay abreast of how the team adapts CATCH, and how bacterial biosensors in general continue to develop to aid diagnosis of diseases and improve ways to target treatment.

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

Could Bacteria Help Find Cancer?

Researchers Engineer Bacteria That Can Detect Tumor DNA

Engineered Bacteria Can Act as Biosensors to Detect Cancer DNA

Engineered Bacteria Detect Tumor DNA

Engineered Bacteria Can Detect Tumor DNA

Scientists Genetically Engineer Bacteria to Detect Cancer Cells

Genetically Engineered Bacteria Can Detect Cancer Cells in a World-First Experiment

Protein Catalyzed Capture Agents

Scientists Use Thousands of Genetic Markers to Develop Risk Scores for Six Common Diseases: Findings May Have Implications for Clinical Laboratories

Study demonstrates how precision medicine is advancing because of new insights from the use and interpretation of whole-genome sequencing

As part of the Genomic Medicine at Veterans Affairs Study (GenoVA), researchers from Harvard Medical School, Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts used thousands of genetic markers to develop and validate polygenic risk scores (PRS) for six common illnesses. These findings may eventually provide clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups with useful biomarkers and diagnostic tests.

The focus of the ongoing GenoVA study is to “determine the clinical effectiveness of polygenic risk score testing among patients at high genetic risk for at least one of six diseases measured by time-to-diagnosis of prevalent or incident disease over 24 months,” according to the National Institutes of Health.   

The scientists used data obtained from 36,423 patients enrolled in the Mass General Brigham Biobank. The six diseases they researched were:

The polygenic scores were then tested among 227 healthy adult patients to determine their risk for the six diseases. The researchers found that:

  • 11% of the patients had a high-risk score for atrial fibrillation,
  • 7% for coronary artery disease,
  • 8% for diabetes, and
  • 6% for colorectal cancer.

Among the subjects used for the study:

  • 15% of the men in the study had a high-risk score for prostate cancer, and
  • 13% of the women in the study had a high score for breast cancer. 

The researchers concluded that the implementation of PRS may help improve disease prevention and management and give doctor’s a way to assess a patient’s risk for these conditions. They published their findings in the journal Nature Medicine, titled, “Development of a Clinical Polygenic Risk Score Assay and Reporting Workflow.”

“We have shown that [medical] laboratory assay development and PRS reporting to patients and physicians are feasible … As the performance of PRS continues to improve—particularly for individuals of underrepresented ancestry groups—the implementation processes we describe can serve as generalizable models for laboratories and health systems looking to realize the potential of PRS for improved patient health,” the researchers wrote.

Using PRS in Clinical Decision Support

Polygenetic risk scores examine multiple genetic markers for risk of certain diseases. A calculation based on hundreds or thousands of these genetic markers could help doctors and patients make personalized treatment decisions, a core tenet of precision medicine.

“As a primary care physician myself, I knew that busy physicians were not going to have time to take an entire course on polygenic risk scores. Instead, we wanted to design a lab report and informational resources that succinctly told the doctor and patient what they need to know to make a decision about using a polygenic risk score result in their healthcare,” epidemiologist Jason Vassy, MD, told The Harvard Gazette. Vassy is Associate Professor, Harvard Medical School at VA Boston Healthcare System and one of the authors of the research.

Jason Vassy, MD
“This is another great example of precision medicine,” Jason Vassy, MD (above), Adjunct Assistant Professor, General Internal Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, told WebMD. “There’s always been a tantalizing idea that someone’s genetic makeup might help tailor preventative medicine and treatment.” Personalized clinical laboratory testing is increasingly becoming based on an individual’s genetics. (Photo copyright: Harvard Medical School.)

Increasing Diversity of Patients in Genomic Research

The team did encounter some challenges during their analysis. Because most existing genomic research was performed on persons of European descent, the risk scores are less accurate among non-European populations. The researchers for this study addressed this limitation by applying additional statistical methods to qualify accurate PRS calculations across multiple racial groups.

“Researchers must continue working to increase the diversity of patients participating in genomics research,” said Matthew Lebo, PhD, Chief Laboratory Director, Laboratory Molecular Medicine, at Mass General Brigham and one of the authors of the study. “In the meantime, we were heartened to see that we could generate and implement valid genetic scores for patients of diverse backgrounds,” he told The Harvard Gazette.

The team hopes the scores may be utilized in the future to help doctors and patients make better decisions regarding preventative care and screenings.

“It’s easy to say that everyone needs a colonoscopy at age 45,” Vassy told WebMD. “But what if you’re such a low risk that you could put it off for longer? We may get to the point where we understand risk so much that someone may not need one at all.”

Future of PRS in Clinical Decision Making

The scientists plan to enroll more than 1,000 patients in a new program and track them for two years to assess how medical professionals use PRS in clinical care. It is feasible that patients who are at high risk for certain diseases may opt for more frequent screenings or take preventative medicines to mitigate their risk.

“Getting to that point will take time,” Vassy added. “But I can see this type of information playing a role in shared decision making between doctor and patient in the near future.”

The team also established resources and educational materials to assist both doctors and patients in using the scores.

“It’s still very early days for precision prevention,” Vassy noted, “but we have shown it is feasible to overcome some of the first barriers to bringing polygenic risk scores into the clinic.”

More research and studies are needed to prove the effectiveness of using PRS tests in clinical care and determine its role in customized treatment plans based on personal genetics. Nevertheless, pathologists and medical scientists will want to follow the GenoVA study.  

“It is probably most helpful to think of polygenic risk scores as a risk factor for disease, not a diagnostic test or an indication that an individual will certainly develop the disease,” Vassy said. “Most diseases have complex, multifactorial etiologies, and a high polygenic risk score is just one piece of the puzzle.”

Pathologists and clinical laboratory managers may want to stay informed as researchers in the GenoVA study tease new useful diagnostic insights from their ongoing study of the whole human genome. Meanwhile, the GenoVA team is moving forward with the 1,000-patient study with the expectation that this new knowledge may enable earlier and more accurate diagnoses of the health conditions that were the focus of the GenoVA study.

JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Genetic Risk Scores Developed for Six Diseases

Development of a Clinical Polygenic Risk Score Assay and Reporting Workflow

What If You Knew Your Unique Risk for Every Disease?

Polygenic Risk Scores May Assist Decision-making in Primary Care

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