‘Holy grail’ trialed by NHS could save thousands of lives by detecting cancer before symptoms appear

A blood test for over-50s being trialled by the NHS could prevent as many as one in ten cancer deaths in the UK.

The health service is conducting a world first trial of the test, which aims to detect more than 50 types of cancer before symptoms appear.

While there are no results yet, researchers are optimistic it has “huge” potential. Based on models, they think the ‘Holy Grail’ test could prevent about 10 percent of cancer deaths, of which there are about 167,000 in the UK each year – nearly 460 a day.

The breakthrough could save some 16,000 lives every year.

Hundreds of participants in the trial with 140,000 volunteers are already being referred for a scan or colonoscopy based on the test results. It is expected that about half of the people referred could have cancer.

If the trial proves successful, the trial will be rolled out to a million more people as early as 2024, then possibly nationwide.

If the test were made available across the UK and offered to about 18 million adults aged 50 to 79, about 130,000 more people with no symptoms would be referred to cancer screening every year, assuming one in a hundred is test positive, such as researchers expect.

British researchers believe the cancer test – by US company Grail – could be a ‘turning point’ in the way the NHS is tackling the disease.

Currently, there are nearly three million urgent cancer referrals each year, based on numbers for the year to February, so the test would increase referrals by about 5 percent.

The researchers point out that many of these referrals would happen anyway, but at a later date.

The NHS is struggling with a post-Covid backlog of cancer referrals, and leaked data this month showed more than 10,000 people are waiting three months for treatment after being referred for suspected cancer. But it is hoped that this situation will have changed by the time the test is potentially rolled out.

Professor Peter Sasieni, one of the three principal investigators of the study from King’s College London, said: ‘The potential of this blood test to drastically reduce the number of people dying from cancer is enormous. If the test is rolled out by the NHS we will of course see a slight increase in workload in the short term due to the slightly higher number of cancer referrals.

‘But in the long term there are also big savings to be made for the NHS, such as reducing the need for chemotherapy and expensive drugs for advanced cancers.’

The blood test, called the Galleri test, picks up fragments of DNA related to cancer that are poured into the blood, and can suggest which part of the body it came from. It is revolutionizing the way cancer is detected, as most patients are currently not diagnosed until they develop symptoms.

Based on models, they believe that the

Based on models, they believe the ‘Holy Grail’ test could prevent about 10 per cent of cancer deaths, of which there are about 167,000 in the UK each year – nearly 460 a day

It won’t become clear until the results of the NHS study are published whether the test can prevent about 10 percent of all cancer deaths, as the modeling suggests.

But the test offers hope for hard-to-detect cancers, such as ovarian and pancreatic, which are usually picked up much too late.

In the NHS study, led by Cancer Research UK, King’s College London Cancer Prevention Trials Unit and Grail, people aged 50 to 77 sent letters of invitation.

Those with a signal of cancer in their blood were referred for a scan within a target of two weeks, which is expected to apply if the blood test is routinely offered. Researchers aren’t yet revealing what proportion of those referred to hospital in the NHS study were found to have cancer, but previous studies suggest it could be 30 to 70 percent.

In comparison, less than 10 percent of people referred to the hospital after breast or colon cancer screening actually have cancer. Half of the people in the NHS study did not have their blood sample tested. Their rate of advanced cancer will be compared to that of those who get the test. If it’s significantly higher, it suggests the test has prevented people from developing advanced cancer.

The 130,000 referrals in the UK using the cancer blood test are based on people aged 50 to 79 using the test, if 70 per cent of them accept the invitation.

The first results of the trial will be shared with the NHS in 2024.

Rose Gray, from Cancer Research UK, said: ‘Research like this is crucial to making progress against late-stage cancer and giving more patients the chance to get a good outcome.’

‘This test can suffer if mine occur’

It took Hollywood star Olivia Williams four years to discover that her symptoms were the result of a very rare pancreatic cancer.

The British actress saw ten doctors on three continents while working on several films, but a tumor the size of two matchboxes in her pancreas went undiagnosed.

Now, the 54-year-old, who is set to play Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown, is in favor of the Galleri test to detect early signs of pancreatic cancer before symptoms appear.

Miss Williams, an ambassador for Pancreatic Cancer UK, has recovered from the disease, which is less fatal than its most common form. But she had half of her pancreas, spleen and gallbladder removed and now has to take pills to digest food.

The mother of two said, “For four years I suspected something was wrong, but I wasn’t sure. This test is the end of that, it is a gift from the gods. It will prevent that second blow that so many of us have to deal with – that you not only have cancer, but that it has spread.”

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