Dutch blood test that detects cancer early is a success

Dutch blood test that detects cancer early is a success
Dutch blood test that detects cancer early is a success

The Dutch team, led by medical researcher Myron Best and professor Tom Würdinger, uses platelets for the test. These are jack-of-all-trades in human blood: they not only help blood to clot and seal wounds, but they are closely linked to the immune system.

Particularly important for the test is that platelets likely adapt their shape to tumors present, Best says. “They also form a shield around cancer cells entering the bloodstream. We are getting better and better at reading the different shapes of those platelets.”

The diagnostic work is left to a computer. To this end, PhD student Sjors In ‘t Veld, together with various hospitals, collected more than two thousand blood samples from sick and healthy people. The team then trained a self-learning computer program with so-called machine learning to recognize which platelet forms are associated with certain cancer diagnoses.

‘Nice start’

The computer can then reasonably diagnose eighteen types of cancer, the team writes in the magazine Cancer Cell. In two-thirds of cancer patients, including advanced ones, the program correctly recognizes that a tumor is present. If the cancer has not yet spread (up to stage three), the test works in about half of the cases.

“A neat study”, says medical statistician Maarten van Smeden of the University Medical Center Utrecht, who was not involved in the research and who works a lot on machine learning himself. According to him, the researchers show that they are on to something. “It’s a nice start.”

For massive cancer screening, however, the test in its current state has “no chance,” writes Eleftherios Diamandis, professor of clinical chemistry at the University of Toronto, in a response. This is because the computer still relatively often incorrectly assumes that a healthy person would have cancer. Diamandis calculates that for every 100 people who are told that they have cancer with the test, 57 of them do not have a tumor.

On the right track

Due to so much uncertainty, thousands of people every year have to wait for unnecessary additional medical examinations, often in suspense, only to be told that they do not have cancer after all. For this reason, the Health Council of the Netherlands rejected a request from Erasmus MC a few years ago to invite men for a blood test that would indicate prostate cancer.

Researcher In ‘t Veld acknowledges that the test is not yet suitable for use among the general population. “To reduce the number of false positives, we need to train the computer further with thousands of new blood samples.” He is confident that the program will continue to improve. “The software spontaneously learned to recognize two types of cancer that it had not seen before. That is an indication that we are on the right track.”

Until then, the test may be suitable for people who are already clear in advance that they have an increased risk of cancer, says Best. “Think of people with a hereditary predisposition to breast cancer. But whether the test is suitable for this also requires more research.”

Pancreatic cancer cells (blue) in the lab.Image ANP / BSIP

The article is in Dutch

Tags: Dutch blood test detects cancer early success

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