New Test Can Identify If a Patient Has Cancer and If It Has Spread

5 January 2022

Research published by Trinity lecturer James Larkin showcases a new type of blood test that can be used to detect a range of cancers and whether these cancers have spread (metastasised) in the body. The study analysed samples from 300 patients with non-specific but concerning symptoms of cancer, such as fatigue and weight loss, who were recruited through the Oxfordshire Suspected CANcer (SCAN) pathway

The research, published today in Clinical Cancer Research with lead researcher Dr Fay Probert, assessed whether the test could distinguish patients with a range of solid tumours from those without cancer. Their results show that cancer was correctly detected in 19 out of every 20 patients with cancer using the test. In those with cancer, metastatic disease was identified with an overall accuracy of 94%. These results make this the first technology to be able to determine the metastatic status of a cancer from a simple blood test, without prior knowledge of the primary cancer type.

The test shows promise to help clinicians detect cancer and assess cancer stage in the future. Unlike many blood-based tests for cancer, which detect genetic material from tumours, this test uses a technique called NMR metabolomics, which uses high magnetic fields and radio waves to profile levels of natural chemicals (metabolites) in the blood.

Healthy individuals, people with localised cancer, and people with metastatic cancer each have different profiles of blood metabolites, which can be detected and then analysed by the researchers’ algorithms to distinguish between these states.

Dr Larkin says: ‘Cancer cells have unique metabolomic fingerprints due to their different metabolic processes. We are only now starting to understand how metabolites produced by tumours can be used as biomarkers to accurately detect cancer. We have already demonstrated that this technology can successfully identify if patients with multiple sclerosis are progressing to the later stages of disease, even before trained clinicians could tell. It is very exciting that the same technology is now showing promise in other diseases, like cancer.’

The technology behind the test is being set up by Dr Larkin as a spinout to translate the technology into clinical settings. Oxomics, of which Dr Larkin is co-founder and CEO, recently took the top prize in the Oxford Academic and Health Science Network Accelerator programme for 2021. The prize guarantees £50,000 worth of business support, with the potential for more in the future.

Oxomics is developing a minimally invasive, single-shot platform technology for disease diagnosis and prognosis. The technology combines analysis of metabolites present in blood samples with machine learning to identify patterns of change that indicate disease. Oxomics’ initial product to market will be a test for the detection of cancer in patients with non-specific symptoms such as fatigue or weight loss. This is an area of critical unmet need in current cancer diagnostic pathways.