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Cancer detection is now a blood test away

Over 80 per cent of cancer cases in Kenya are diagnosed at the late stage, leading to a low survival rate. Liquid biopsy shines a ray of hope for patients

Rebecca Mutiso @rebeccamutheu

Treatment of cancer in Kenya could change from today following the introduction of liquid biopsy, a new method of testing for the disease using a blood sample.

  The test is a non-invasive way to test for cancer and it can tell what type of cancer a patient has and the stage. This means with a simple prick on the finger to draw a blood sample, a doctor will be able to diagnose the disease instead of the conventional way of conducting surgery to get a sample for testing.

A biopsy, usually involves surgery, which means pain for the patient; a potentially long recovery period and a long wait for results. With liquid biopsy a patient can get results in less than 10 days and a doctor can monitor the development of a tumour in real-time.

This makes the treatment of the disease easier because the doctor can tell what type of cancer a patient is suffering from and embark on treatment immediately or change course of treatment when a drug is not working. 

Patients will on the other hand, have accurate information to make informed decisions. Kenya will be the third country in Africa after South Africa and Tunisia to offer the test.

Robbin Noreh, a biotechnologist and lab director at Massive Genomics, the company offering the service, says the test will pick the combination of genes that cause cancer and help the doctor to choose the best treatment option for a particular patient, based on their genetic make-up.

For the types of cancer where there is no available drug for treatment, the patient will be directed to institutions offering clinical tests for new drugs. The test will cost Sh70,000 and is available from today. 

“The test will detect all possible cancers in a patient and look at over 900 hotspots in the body. In other words, it will ‘google’ a patients blood to test for all forms of cancer,” he says. Liquid biopsy is not the first blood test to detect cancer. Prostrate Specific Antigen (PSA) test has for many years been useful in the diagnosis of prostrate cancer.

Liquid biopsy is different from other forms of biopsies. Instead of looking at the cells, it will concentrate on the DNA of a patient. It will examine the presence of cancer tumour genes and their specific types of mutation from circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA), a free flowing DNA from tumour cells found in the blood of cancer patients.

Bramwel Mwiti, Massive Genomics’s, Chief Operating Officer, says the test will revolutionise the treatment of cancer because it will diagnose cancer at the earliest stage and save lives.

Data from the regional cancer registry at The Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) shows that about 80 per cent of reported cases of cancer in Kenya are diagnosed at advanced stages when little can be done to save the patient. 

However, the test will not replace real biopsies, which offer information that cannot be obtained any other way such as histological information necessary for cancer diagnosis.

The new test will, however, come in handy in patients who cannot undergo surgery, where a surgical biopsy does not offer enough tissue and in patients at an advanced stage of cancer where it is not possible to obtain biopsies of every part of the body the disease has spread to.

Dr Naftali Busakhala, Chair for the division of Hematology and Oncology, Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital (MTRH), says liquid biopsy is a smart way of diagnosing cancer without putting a patient through painful surgery.

“The biopsy has widely been used to diagnose lung cancer, but it is also used to diagnose skin, prostrate, breast and many other types of cancer. It will save lives because it will tell a doctor when to stop treatment, in case a drug is not working and when to restart,” he says. 

The test can also be used as a preventive measure because it can detect cancer at the earliest stage. “However, not all cancerous tumours develop into the disease because the body has a way of eliminating them. This means that not all cancers diagnosed at an early stage need treatment,” he says.

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