United Kingdom’s National Health Service Now Offers Liquid Biopsy Tests to Certain Cancer Patients as a Complement to Anatomic Pathology Testing
Decision is part of UK effort to diagnose 75% of all cancers at stage I or stage II by 2028 and demonstrates to pathologists that the technology used in liquid biopsy tests is improving at a fast pace
Pathologists and medical laboratory scientists know that when it comes to liquid biopsy tests to detect cancer, there is plenty of both hope and hype. Nevertheless, following a successful pilot study at the Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester, England, which ran from 2015-2021, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is pushing forward with the use of liquid biopsy tests for certain cancer patients, The Guardian reported.
NHS’ decision to roll out the widespread use of liquid biopsies—a screening tool used to search for cancer cells or pieces of DNA from tumor cells in a blood sample—across the UK is a hopeful sign that ongoing improvements in this diagnostic technology are reaching a point where it may be consistently reliable when used in clinical settings.
The national program provides personalized drug therapies based on the genetic markers found in the blood tests of cancer patients who have solid tumors and are otherwise out of treatment options. The liquid biopsy creates, in essence, a match-making service for patients and clinical trials.
Liquid Biopsy Genetic Testing for Cancer Patients
“The learnings from our original ‘Target’ study in Manchester were that genetic testing needs to be done on a large scale to identify rare genetic mutations and that broader access to medicines through clinical trials being undertaken across the country rather than just one site are required,” Matthew Krebs, PhD, Clinical Senior Lecturer in Experimental Cancer Medicine at the University of Manchester, told The Guardian.
Krebs, an honorary consultant in medical oncology at the Christie NHS Foundation Trust, led the Target National pilot study.
“This study will allow thousands of cancer patients in the UK to access genetic testing via a liquid biopsy. This will enable us to identify rare genetic mutations that in some patients could mean access to life-changing experimental medicines that can provide great treatment responses, where there are otherwise limited or no other treatment options available.”
Detecting cancers at earlier stages of disease—when treatment is more likely to result in improved survival—has become a strategic cancer planning priority in the UK, theBMJ noted.
“The NHS is committed to diagnosing 75% of all cancers at stage I or II by 2028, from around 50% currently,” the BMJ wrote. “Achieving such progress in less than a decade would be highly ambitious, even without disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In this context, considerable hope has been expressed that blood tests for circulating free DNA—sometimes known as liquid biopsy—could help achieve earlier detection of cancers.”
The Guardian noted that the UK’s initiative will use a liquid biopsy test made by Swiss-healthcare giant Roche.
Liquid Biopsies: Hope or Hype?
In 2020, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expanded its clearance for two liquid biopsy tests in this country—Guardant Health’s Guardant360 CDx and Foundation Medicine’s FoundationOne Liquid CDx—for use as companion diagnostic tests and for general tumor profiling for certain non-small cell lung, prostate, breast, and ovarian cancers, according to an NIH National Cancer Institute news release.
In her article “The Promise of Liquid Biopsies for Cancer Diagnosis,” published in the American Journal of Managed Care (AJMC) Evidence-based Oncology, serial healthcare entrepreneur and faculty lecturer at Harvard Medical School Liz Kwo, MD, detailed the optimism surrounding the “revolutionary screening tool,” including its potential for:
- providing earlier diagnose of cancer,
- customizing treatment through genotyping,
- identifying mechanisms of resistance to therapies,
- measuring remaining disease after treatment,
- assessing cancer relapse or resistance to treatment, and
- eliminating risk surrounding traditional biopsies.
The AJMC article estimated the liquid biopsy market will be valued at $6 billion by 2030. However, Kwo also noted that clinical adoption of liquid biopsies in the US continues to face challenges.
In a STAT editorial, titled, “Liquid Biopsy: Misplaced Faith in Early Cancer Detection?” H. Gilbert Welch, MD, a Harvard University academic physician and cancer researcher, voiced concerns about widespread use of liquid biopsies for cancer screening.
Welch compared the investor hype surrounding liquid biopsies to that of the now-defunct blood testing company Theranos, which lured high-profile investors to pour millions into its unproven diagnostic technology.
“Effective cancer screening requires more than early detection. It also requires that starting therapy earlier helps people live to older ages than they would if they started treatment later,” he wrote. “If that doesn’t happen, liquid biopsies will only lead to people living longer with the knowledge they have a potentially incurable disease without extending their lives. These people would be subjected to cancer therapies and their toxicities earlier, but at a time when they would otherwise be experiencing no cancer-related signs or symptoms.”
And so, while there’s much excitement about the possibility of a minimally invasive way to detect cancer, anatomic pathology groups and clinical laboratories will have to wait and see if the hype and hope surrounding liquid biopsies is substantiated by further research.
—Andrea Downing Peck