A blood test may catch colorectal cancer before it's too late
Soon it may be possible to find different types of cancer earlier than ever through a simple blood test.
Among the many blood tests in development, researchers announced in July that they have developed one that may screen for early-onset colorectal cancer. The new potential screening tool, detailed in a study in the journal Gastroenterology, represents a major step in noninvasively and inexpensively detecting nonhereditary colorectal cancer at an earlier and more treatable stage.
In recent years, this type of cancer has been on the upswing in adults under age 50 and in those without a family history. In 2021, the American Cancer Society's revised guidelines began recommending that colorectal cancer screenings with colonoscopy begin at age 45. But that still wouldn’t catch many early-onset cases among people in their 20s and 30s, says Ajay Goel, professor and chair of molecular diagnostics and experimental therapeutics at City of Hope, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit cancer research and treatment center that developed the new blood test.
“These people will mostly be missed because they will never be screened for it,” Goel says. Overall, colorectal cancer is the fourth most common malignancy, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Goel is far from the only one working on this. Dozens of companies are in the process of developing blood tests to screen for different types of malignancies.
Some estimates indicate that between one-fourth and one-third of all newly diagnosed colorectal cancers are early-onset. These patients generally present with more aggressive and advanced disease at diagnosis compared to late-onset colorectal cancer detected in people 50 years or older.
To develop his test, Goel examined publicly available datasets and figured out that changes in novel microRNAs, or miRNAs, which regulate the expression of genes, occurred in people with early-onset colorectal cancer. He confirmed these biomarkers by looking for them in the blood of 149 patients who had the early-onset form of the disease. In particular, Goel and his team of researchers were able to pick out four miRNAs that serve as a telltale sign of this cancer when they’re found in combination with each other.
The blood test is being validated by following another group of patients with early-onset colorectal cancer. “We have filed for intellectual property on this invention and are currently seeking biotech/pharma partners to license and commercialize this invention,” Goel says.
He’s far from the only one working on this. Dozens of companies are in the process of developing blood tests to screen for different types of malignancies, says Timothy Rebbeck, a professor of cancer prevention at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. But, he adds, “It’s still very early, and the technology still needs a lot of work before it will revolutionize early detection.”
The accuracy of the early detection blood tests for cancer isn’t yet where researchers would like it to be. To use these tests widely in people without cancer, a very high degree of precision is needed, says David VanderWeele, interim director of the OncoSET Molecular Tumor Board at Northwestern University’s Lurie Cancer Center in Chicago.
Otherwise, “you’re going to cause a lot of anxiety unnecessarily if people have false-positive tests,” VanderWeele says. So far, “these tests are better at finding cancer when there’s a higher burden of cancer present,” although the goal is to detect cancer at the earliest stages. Even so, “we are making progress,” he adds.
While early detection is known to improve outcomes, most cancers are detected too late, often after they metastasize and people develop symptoms. Only five cancer types have recommended standard screenings, none of which involve blood tests—breast, cervical, colorectal, lung (smokers considered at risk) and prostate cancers, says Trish Rowland, vice president of corporate communications at GRAIL, a biotechnology company in Menlo Park, Calif., which developed a multi-cancer early detection blood test.
These recommended screenings check for individual cancers rather than looking for any form of cancer someone may have. The devil lies in the fact that cancers without widespread screening recommendations represent the vast majority of cancer diagnoses and most cancer deaths.
GRAIL’s Galleri multi-cancer early detection test is designed to find more cancers at earlier stages by analyzing DNA shed into the bloodstream by cells—with as few false positives as possible, she says. The test is currently available by prescription only for those with an elevated risk of cancer. Consumers can request it from their healthcare or telemedicine provider. “Galleri can detect a shared cancer signal across more than 50 types of cancers through a simple blood draw,” Rowland says, adding that it can be integrated into annual health checks and routine blood work.
Cancer patients—even those with early and curable disease—often have tumor cells circulating in their blood. “These tumor cells act as a biomarker and can be used for cancer detection and diagnosis,” says Andrew Wang, a radiation oncologist and professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “Our research goal is to be able to detect these tumor cells to help with cancer management.” Collaborating with Seungpyo Hong, the Milton J. Henrichs Chair and Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Pharmacy, “we have developed a highly sensitive assay to capture these circulating tumor cells.”
Even if the quality of a blood test is superior, finding cancer early doesn’t always mean it’s absolutely best to treat it. For example, prostate cancer treatment’s potential side effects—the inability to control urine or have sex—may be worse than living with a slow-growing tumor that is unlikely to be fatal. “[The test] needs to tell me, am I going to die of that cancer? And, if I intervene, will I live longer?” says John Marshall, chief of hematology and oncology at Medstar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Ajay Goel Lab
A blood test developed at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston helps predict who may benefit from lung cancer screening when it is combined with a risk model based on an individual’s smoking history, according to a study published in January in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. The personalized lung cancer risk assessment was more sensitive and specific than the 2021 and 2013 U.S. Preventive Services Task Force criteria.
The study involved participants from the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial with a minimum of a 10 pack-year smoking history, meaning they smoked 20 cigarettes per day for ten years. If implemented, the blood test plus model would have found 9.2 percent more lung cancer cases for screening and decreased referral to screening among non-cases by 13.7 percent compared to the 2021 task force criteria, according to Oncology Times.
The conventional type of screening for lung cancer is an annual low-dose CT scan, but only a small percentage of people who are eligible will actually get these scans, says Sam Hanash, professor of clinical cancer prevention and director of MD Anderson’s Center for Global Cancer Early Detection. Such screening is not readily available in most countries.
In methodically searching for blood-based biomarkers for lung cancer screening, MD Anderson researchers developed a simple test consisting of four proteins. These proteins circulating in the blood were at high levels in individuals who had lung cancer or later developed it, Hanash says.
“The interest in blood tests for cancer early detection has skyrocketed in the past few years,” he notes, “due in part to advances in technology and a better understanding of cancer causation, cancer drivers and molecular changes that occur with cancer development.”
However, at the present time, none of the blood tests being considered eliminate the need for screening of eligible subjects using established methods, such as colonoscopy for colorectal cancer. Yet, Hanash says, “they have the potential to complement these modalities.”
Meet Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, the first Director of President Biden's new health agency, ARPA-H
In today’s podcast episode, I talk with Renee Wegrzyn, appointed by President Biden as the first director of a federal agency created last year called the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H. It’s inspired by DARPA, the agency that develops innovations for the Defense department and has been credited with hatching world changing technologies such as ARPANET, which became the internet.
Time will tell if ARPA-H will lead to similar achievements in the realm of health. That’s what President Biden and Congress expect in return for funding ARPA-H at 2.5 billion dollars over three years.
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How will the agency figure out which projects to take on, especially with so many patient advocates for different diseases demanding moonshot funding for rapid progress.
I talked with Dr. Wegrzyn about the opportunities and challenges, what lessons ARPA-H is borrowing from Operation Warp Speed, how she decided on the first ARPA-H project which was just announced recently, why a separate agency was needed instead of trying to reform HHS and the National Institutes of Health to be better at innovation, and how ARPA-H will make progress on disease prevention in addition to treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, among many other health priorities.
Dr. Wegrzyn’s resume is filled with experience for her important role. She was a program manager at DARPA where she focused on applying gene editing and synthetic biology to the goal of improving biosecurity. For her work there, she was given the Superior Public Service Medal and, just in case that wasn’t enough ARPA experience, she also worked at another ARPA that leads advanced projects in intelligence, called I-ARPA. Before that, she was in charge of technical teams in the private sector working on gene therapies and disease diagnostics, among other areas. She has been a vice president of business development at Gingko Bioworks and headed innovation at Concentric by Gingko. Her training and education includes a PhD and undergraduate degree in applied biology from the Georgia Institute of Technology and she did her postdoc as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in Heidelberg, Germany.
As Dr. Wegrzyn told me, she’s “in the hot seat” - the pressure is on for ARPA-H especially after the need and potential for health innovation was spot lit by the pandemic and the unprecedented speed of vaccine development. We'll soon find out if ARPA-H can produce something in health that’s equivalent to DARPA’s creation of the internet.
ARPA-H - https://arpa-h.gov/
Dr. Wegrzyn profile - https://arpa-h.gov/people/renee-wegrzyn/
Dr. Wegrzyn Twitter - https://twitter.com/rwegrzyn?lang=en
President Biden Announces Dr. Wegrzyn's appointment - https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statement...
Leaps.org coverage of ARPA-H - https://leaps.org/arpa/
ARPA-H program for joints to heal themselves - https://arpa-h.gov/news/nitro/ -
ARPA-H virtual talent search - https://arpa-h.gov/news/aco-talent-search/
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
Tiny, tough “water bears” may help bring new vaccines and medicines to sub-Saharan Africa
Microscopic tardigrades, widely considered to be some of the toughest animals on earth, can survive for decades without oxygen or water and are thought to have lived through a crash-landing on the moon. Also known as water bears, they survive by fully dehydrating and later rehydrating themselves – a feat only a few animals can accomplish. Now scientists are harnessing tardigrades’ talents to make medicines that can be dried and stored at ambient temperatures and later rehydrated for use—instead of being kept refrigerated or frozen.
Many biologics—pharmaceutical products made by using living cells or synthesized from biological sources—require refrigeration, which isn’t always available in many remote locales or places with unreliable electricity. These products include mRNA and other vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and immuno-therapies for cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and other conditions. Cooling is also needed for medicines for blood clotting disorders like hemophilia and for trauma patients.
Formulating biologics to withstand drying and hot temperatures has been the holy grail for pharmaceutical researchers for decades. It’s a hard feat to manage. “Biologic pharmaceuticals are highly efficacious, but many are inherently unstable,” says Thomas Boothby, assistant professor of molecular biology at University of Wyoming. Therefore, during storage and shipping, they must be refrigerated at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (35 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit). Some must be frozen, typically at -20 degrees Celsius, but sometimes as low -90 degrees Celsius as was the case with the Pfizer Covid vaccine.
For Covid, fewer than 73 percent of the global population received even one dose. The need for refrigerated or frozen handling was partially to blame.
The costly cold chain
The logistics network that ensures those temperature requirements are met from production to administration is called the cold chain. This cold chain network is often unreliable or entirely lacking in remote, rural areas in developing nations that have malfunctioning electrical grids. “Almost all routine vaccines require a cold chain,” says Christopher Fox, senior vice president of formulations at the Access to Advanced Health Institute. But when the power goes out, so does refrigeration, putting refrigerated or frozen medical products at risk. Consequently, the mRNA vaccines developed for Covid-19 and other conditions, as well as more traditional vaccines for cholera, tetanus and other diseases, often can’t be delivered to the most remote parts of the world.
To understand the scope of the challenge, consider this: In the U.S., more than 984 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine have been distributed so far. Each one needed refrigeration that, even in the U.S., proved challenging. Now extrapolate to all vaccines and the entire world. For Covid, fewer than 73 percent of the global population received even one dose. The need for refrigerated or frozen handling was partially to blame.
Globally, the cold chain packaging market is valued at over $15 billion and is expected to exceed $60 billion by 2033.
Freeze-drying, also called lyophilization, which is common for many vaccines, isn’t always an option. Many freeze-dried vaccines still need refrigeration, and even medicines approved for storage at ambient temperatures break down in the heat of sub-Saharan Africa. “Even in a freeze-dried state, biologics often will undergo partial rehydration and dehydration, which can be extremely damaging,” Boothby explains.
The cold chain is also very expensive to maintain. The global pharmaceutical cold chain packaging market is valued at more than $15 billion, and is expected to exceed $60 billion by 2033, according to a report by Future Market Insights. This cost is only expected to grow. According to the consulting company Accenture, the number of medicines that require the cold chain are expected to grow by 48 percent, compared to only 21 percent for non-cold-chain therapies.
Tardigrades to the rescue
Tardigrades are only about a millimeter long – with four legs and claws, and they lumber around like bears, thus their nickname – but could provide a big solution. “Tardigrades are unique in the animal kingdom, in that they’re able to survive a vast array of environmental insults,” says Boothby, the Wyoming professor. “They can be dried out, frozen, heated past the boiling point of water and irradiated at levels that are thousands of times more than you or I could survive.” So, his team is gradually unlocking tardigrades’ survival secrets and applying them to biologic pharmaceuticals to make them withstand both extreme heat and desiccation without losing efficacy.
Boothby’s team is focusing on blood clotting factor VIII, which, as the name implies, causes blood to clot. Currently, Boothby is concentrating on the so-called cytoplasmic abundant heat soluble (CAHS) protein family, which is found only in tardigrades, protecting them when they dry out. “We showed we can desiccate a biologic (blood clotting factor VIII, a key clotting component) in the presence of tardigrade proteins,” he says—without losing any of its effectiveness.
The researchers mixed the tardigrade protein with the blood clotting factor and then dried and rehydrated that substance six times without damaging the latter. This suggests that biologics protected with tardigrade proteins can withstand real-world fluctuations in humidity.
Furthermore, Boothby’s team found that when the blood clotting factor was dried and stabilized with tardigrade proteins, it retained its efficacy at temperatures as high as 95 degrees Celsius. That’s over 200 degrees Fahrenheit, much hotter than the 58 degrees Celsius that the World Meteorological Organization lists as the hottest recorded air temperature on earth. In contrast, without the protein, the blood clotting factor degraded significantly. The team published their findings in the journal Nature in March.
Although tardigrades rarely live more than 2.5 years, they have survived in a desiccated state for up to two decades, according to Animal Diversity Web. This suggests that tardigrades’ CAHS protein can protect biologic pharmaceuticals nearly indefinitely without refrigeration or freezing, which makes it significantly easier to deliver them in locations where refrigeration is unreliable or doesn’t exist.
The tricks of the tardigrades
Besides the CAHS proteins, tardigrades rely on a type of sugar called trehalose and some other protectants. So, rather than drying up, their cells solidify into rigid, glass-like structures. As that happens, viscosity between cells increases, thereby slowing their biological functions so much that they all but stop.
Now Boothby is combining CAHS D, one of the proteins in the CAHS family, with trehalose. He found that CAHS D and trehalose each protected proteins through repeated drying and rehydrating cycles. They also work synergistically, which means that together they might stabilize biologics under a variety of dry storage conditions.
“We’re finding the protective effect is not just additive but actually is synergistic,” he says. “We’re keen to see if something like that also holds true with different protein combinations.” If so, combinations could possibly protect against a variety of conditions.
Before any stabilization technology for biologics can be commercialized, it first must be approved by the appropriate regulators. In the U.S., that’s the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Developing a new formulation would require clinical testing and vast numbers of participants. So existing vaccines and biologics likely won’t be re-formulated for dry storage. “Many were developed decades ago,” says Fox. “They‘re not going to be reformulated into thermo-stable vaccines overnight,” if ever, he predicts.
Extending stability outside the cold chain, even for a few days, can have profound health, environmental and economic benefits.
Instead, this technology is most likely to be used for the new products and formulations that are just being created. New and improved vaccines will be the first to benefit. Good candidates include the plethora of mRNA vaccines, as well as biologic pharmaceuticals for neglected diseases that affect parts of the world where reliable cold chain is difficult to maintain, Boothby says. Some examples include new, more effective vaccines for malaria and for pathogenic Escherichia coli, which causes diarrhea.
Tallying up the benefits
Extending stability outside the cold chain, even for a few days, can have profound health, environmental and economic benefits. For instance, MenAfriVac, a meningitis vaccine (without tardigrade proteins) developed for sub-Saharan Africa, can be stored at up to 40 degrees Celsius for four days before administration. “If you have a few days where you don’t need to maintain the cold chain, it’s easier to transport vaccines to remote areas,” Fox says, where refrigeration does not exist or is not reliable.
Better health is an obvious benefit. MenAfriVac reduced suspected meningitis cases by 57 percent in the overall population and more than 99 percent among vaccinated individuals.
Lower healthcare costs are another benefit. One study done in Togo found that the cold chain-related costs increased the per dose vaccine price up to 11-fold. The ability to ship the vaccines using the usual cold chain, but transporting them at ambient temperatures for the final few days cut the cost in half.
There are environmental benefits, too, such as reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Cold chain transports consume 20 percent more fuel than non-cold chain shipping, due to refrigeration equipment, according to the International Trade Administration.
A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University compared the greenhouse gas emissions of the new, oral Vaxart COVID-19 vaccine (which doesn’t require refrigeration) with four intramuscular vaccines (which require refrigeration or freezing). While the Vaxart vaccine is still in clinical trials, the study found that “up to 82.25 million kilograms of CO2 could be averted by using oral vaccines in the U.S. alone.” That is akin to taking 17,700 vehicles out of service for one year.
Although tardigrades’ protective proteins won’t be a component of biologic pharmaceutics for several years, scientists are proving that this approach is viable. They are hopeful that a day will come when vaccines and biologics can be delivered anywhere in the world without needing refrigerators or freezers en route.