Alberta Cancer Foundation

Researchers are Developing Less-invasive Ways to Test for Cancer

Illustration by Jennifer Madole.

Liquid biopsies — a new way of collecting tumour cells from the body — could revolutionize the way cancer is both screened and treated. By examining bodily fluids, such as blood and urine, doctors can detect and study traces of cancer DNA (as well as circulating tumour cells) and potentially gain key insights into which treatments might work for a patient.

Scientists have known for more than a century that tumours shed cancer molecules into the blood and other bodily fluids, but it was only recently determined that studying these DNA molecules through liquid biopsies could reveal valuable diagnostic and treatment information.

Traditionally, tissue biopsies — which examine tumour cells that are often gathered invasively from the patient — have been the preferred way to determine the presence of cancer.

But tissue biopsies have their barriers. In some cases, for instance, it can be difficult to obtain sufficient tissue to perform all the diagnostic testing that may be required — and there are some tumours that simply cannot be reached via tissue collection at all. In addition, invasive procedures always carry risks for infection or other complications in a patient, especially if tissue samples need to be gathered more than once.

Not only are liquid biopsies much less invasive, but researchers are finding that these tests could potentially detect some forms of cancer sooner and determine more focused treatment plans for patients.

As studies into the efficacy of liquid biopsies continue, so, too, does the discussion around how these promising tests can work in conjunction with other testing methods to create the best possible cancer screening and treatment processes.

 Did you know?

The Alberta Cancer Foundation supports clinical trials that take place in Alberta, including those focused on early detection.