Doctors may be a step closer to finding out which of their patients are likely to develop lung cancer, thanks to a new blood test.
Scientists from the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in France developed the test and claim it can identify 63 per cent of future lung cancer patients among smokers or former smokers.
The test looks for four specific protein biomarkers in a person’s blood to determine their chances of developing lung cancer, Australia’s No.1 cancer killer for both men and women.
The IARC, whose findings were published in the journal JAMA Oncology on Thursday, says biomarkers could be a major help in identifying which smokers are most likely to benefit from lung cancer screening, such as low-dose radiation computed tomography (CT) scans.
Cancer Council Australia chief executive Professor Sanchia Aranda says the earlier smokers undergo screening for lung cancer, the better the chances that any signs of the disease are picked up and treated early.
“If you can screen the healthy individuals who would be eligible for surgery and get them into surgery earlier, then their chances of survival just increases automatically,” she told AAP.
Australia doesn’t have a national screening program for lung cancer.
Doctors can recommend people undergo low-dose CT scans to identify early tumours in the lungs.
However Professor Aranda said the CT scans can sometimes also lead to patients undergoing unnecessary biopsies because they pick up various types of nodules in the lungs that don’t always turn out to be harmful.
Undergoing a blood test first to check someone’s chances of developing lung cancer would help improve the selection criteria for those who need CT scans, she said.
Professor Aranda wants governments to devote more money to research into early diagnosis of lung cancer, a disease that receives far less funding than prostate or breast cancer.
“We would want to see more investment in this kind of research to see where these biomarkers can take us,” she said.
Late last year, Professor Aranda’s predecessor Professor Ian Olver called on governments to make fast-tracking biomarker tests for cancer a priority, arguing they could be the “silver bullet” that’s needed to ensure early detection.
Meanwhile, separate data released by Cancer Australia in April also highlighted the need for an early detection test after it was revealed that just 18 per cent of lung cancer cases recorded in 2011 were caught early.
For two out of five lung cancer patients the disease had already metastasised, or spread to other organs in the body, when first diagnosed.
In Australia, lung cancer is responsible for almost one in five cancer deaths, with 11,556 new cases of the disease diagnosed in 2014.
In 2015, 8466 Australians died from the disease.
The risk of being diagnosed by age 85 is one in 13 for men and one in 21 for women.