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.”
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Kids stressing you out? They could be protecting your health.
- A new device unlocks the heart's secrets
- Super-ager gene transplants
- Surgeons could 3D print your organs before operations
- A skull cap looks into the brain like an fMRI
This article originally appeared in One Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases by land and by sea - and how scientists are working on solutions.
On a warm summer day, forests, meadows, and riverbanks should be abuzz with insects—from butterflies to beetles and bees. But bugs aren’t as abundant as they used to be, and that’s not a plus for people and the planet, scientists say. The declining numbers of insects, coupled with climate change, can have devastating effects for people in more ways than one. “Insects have been around for a very long time and can live well without humans, but humans cannot live without insects and the many services they provide to us,” says Philipp Lehmann, a researcher in the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University in Sweden. Their decline is not just bad, Lehmann adds. “It’s devastating news for humans.
”Insects and other invertebrates are the most diverse organisms on the planet. They fill most niches in terrestrial and aquatic environments and drive ecosystem functions. Many insects are also economically vital because they pollinate crops that humans depend on for food, including cereals, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. A paper published in PNAS notes that insects alone are worth more than $70 billion a year to the U.S. economy. In places where pollinators like honeybees are in decline, farmers now buy them from rearing facilities at steep prices rather than relying on “Mother Nature.”
And because many insects serve as food for other species—bats, birds and freshwater fish—they’re an integral part of the ecosystem’s food chain. “If you like to eat good food, you should thank an insect,” says Scott Hoffman Black, an ecologist and executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “And if you like birds in your trees and fish in your streams, you should be concerned with insect conservation.”
Deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural spread have eaten away at large swaths of insect habitat. The increasingly poorly controlled use of insecticides, which harms unintended species, and the proliferation of invasive insect species that disrupt native ecosystems compound the problem.
“There is not a single reason why insects are in decline,” says Jessica L. Ware, associate curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and president of the Entomological Society of America. “There are over one million described insect species, occupying different niches and responding to environmental stressors in different ways.”
Jessica Ware, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, is using DNA methods to monitor insects.
In addition to habitat loss fueling the decline in insect populations, the other “major drivers” Ware identified are invasive species, climate change, pollution, and fluctuating levels of nitrogen, which play a major role in the lifecycle of plants, some of which serve as insect habitants and others as their food. “The causes of world insect population declines are, unfortunately, very easy to link to human activities,” Lehmann says.
Climate change will undoubtedly make the problem worse. “As temperatures start to rise, it can essentially make it too hot for some insects to survive,” says Emily McDermott, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at the University of Arkansas. “Conversely in other areas, it could potentially also allow other insects to expand their ranges.”
Without Pollinators Humans Will Starve
We may not think much of our planet’s getting warmer by only one degree Celsius, but it can spell catastrophe for many insects, plants, and animals, because it’s often accompanied by less rainfall. “Changes in precipitation patterns will have cascading consequences across the tree of life,” says David Wagner, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. Insects, in particular, are “very vulnerable” because “they’re small and susceptible to drying.”
For instance, droughts have put the monarch butterfly at risk of being unable to find nectar to “recharge its engine” as it migrates from Canada and New England to Mexico for winter, where it enters a hibernation state until it journeys back in the spring. “The monarch is an iconic and a much-loved insect,” whose migration “is imperiled by climate change,” Wagner says.
Warming and drying trends in the Western United States are perhaps having an even more severe impact on insects than in the eastern region. As a result, “we are seeing fewer individual butterflies per year,” says Matt Forister, a professor of insect ecology at the University of Nevada, Reno.
There are hundreds of butterfly species in the United States and thousands in the world. They are pollinators and can serve as good indicators of other species’ health. “Although butterflies are only one group among many important pollinators, in general we assume that what’s bad for butterflies is probably bad for other insects,” says Forister, whose research focuses on butterflies. Climate change and habitat destruction are wreaking havoc on butterflies as well as plants, leading to a further indirect effect on caterpillars and butterflies.
Different insect species have different levels of sensitivity to environmental changes. For example, one-half of the bumblebee species in the United States are showing declines, whereas the other half are not, says Christina Grozinger, a professor of entomology at the Pennsylvania State University. Some species of bumble bees are even increasing in their range, seemingly resilient to environmental changes. But other pollinators are dwindling to the point that farmers have to buy from the rearing facilities, which is the case for the California almond industry. “This is a massive cost to the farmer, which could be provided for free, in case the local habitats supported these pollinators,” Lehmann says.
For bees and other insects, climate change can harm the plants they depend on for survival or have a negative impact on the insects directly. Overly rainy and hot conditions may limit flowering in plants or reduce the ability of a pollinator to forage and feed, which then decreases their reproductive success, resulting in dwindling populations, Grozinger explains.
“Nutritional deprivation can also make pollinators more sensitive to viruses and parasites and therefore cause disease spread,” she says. “There are many ways that climate change can reduce our pollinator populations and make it more difficult to grow the many fruit, vegetable and nut crops that depend on pollinators.”
Disease-Causing Insects Can Bring More Outbreaks
While some much-needed insects are declining, certain disease-causing species may be spreading and proliferating, which is another reason for human concern. Many mosquito types spread malaria, Zika virus, West Nile virus, and a brain infection called equine encephalitis, along with other diseases as well as heartworms in dogs, says Michael Sabourin, president of the Vermont Entomological Society. An animal health specialist for the state, Sabourin conducts vector surveys that identify ticks and mosquitoes.
Scientists refer to disease-carrying insects as vector species and, while there’s a limited number of them, many of these infections can be deadly. Fleas were a well-known vector for the bubonic plague, while kissing bugs are a vector for Chagas disease, a potentially life-threatening parasitic illness in humans, dogs, and other mammals, Sabourin says.
As the planet heats up, some of the creepy crawlers are able to survive milder winters or move up north. Warmer temperatures and a shorter snow season have spawned an increasing abundance of ticks in Maine, including the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), known to transmit Lyme disease, says Sean Birkel, an assistant professor in the Climate Change Institute and Cooperative Extension at the University of Maine.
Coupled with more frequent and heavier precipitation, rising temperatures bring a longer warm season that can also lead to a longer period of mosquito activity. “While other factors may be at play, climate change affects important underlying conditions that can, in turn, facilitate the spread of vector-borne disease,” Birkel says.
For example, if mosquitoes are finding fewer of their preferred food sources, they may bite humans more. Both male and female mosquitoes feed on sugar as part of their normal behavior, but if they aren’t eating their fill, they may become more bloodthirsty. One recent paper found that sugar-deprived Anopheles gambiae females go for larger blood meals to stay in good health and lay eggs. “More blood meals equals more chances to pick up and transmit a pathogen,” McDermott says, He adds that climate change could reduce the number of available plants to feed on. And while most mosquitoes are “generalist sugar-feeders” meaning that they will likely find alternatives, losing their favorite plants can make them hungrier for blood
Similar to the effect of losing plants, mosquitoes may get turned onto people if they lose their favorite animal species. For example, some studies found that Culex pipiens mosquitoes that transmit the West Nile virus feed primarily on birds in summer. But that changes in the fall, at least in some places. Because there are fewer birds around, C. pipiens switch to mammals, including humans. And if some disease-carrying insect species proliferate or increase their ranges, that increases chances for human infection, says McDermott. “A larger concern is that climate change could increase vector population sizes, making it more likely that people or animals would be bitten by an infected insect.”
Science Can Help Bring Back the Buzz
To help friendly insects thrive and keep the foes in check, scientists need better ways of trapping, counting, and monitoring insects. It’s not an easy job, but artificial intelligence and molecular methods can help. Ware’s lab uses various environmental DNA methods to monitor freshwater habitats. Molecular technologies hold much promise. The so-called DNA barcodes, in which species are identified using a short string of their genes, can now be used to identify birds, bees, moths and other creatures, and should be used on a larger scale, says Wagner, the University of Connecticut professor. “One day, something akin to Star Trek’s tricorder will soon be on sale down at the local science store.”
Scientists are also deploying artificial intelligence, or AI, to identify insects in agricultural systems and north latitudes where there are fewer bugs, Wagner says. For instance, some automated traps already use the wingbeat frequencies of mosquitoes to distinguish the harmless ones from the disease-carriers. But new technology and software are needed to further expand detection based on vision, sound, and odors.
“Because of their ubiquity, enormity of numbers, and seemingly boundless diversity, we desperately need to develop molecular and AI technologies that will allow us to automate sampling and identification,” says Wagner. “That would accelerate our ability to track insect populations, alert us to the presence of new disease vectors, exotic pest introductions, and unexpected declines.”