More than 50 types of cancer could soon become easier to diagnose after the NHS has taken steps to launch a pilot for an innovative new blood test said to be capable of detecting the cancers, health service Chief Executive Sir Simon Stevens has announced.
The Galleri blood test can detect early stage cancers through a simple blood test and is now set to be piloted with 165,000 patients as part of a world-first deal struck by NHS England with the test’s developers.
Research on patients with signs of cancer has already found the test is capable of identifying many types of cancer which are more difficult to diagnose early, such as head and neck, ovarian, pancreatic, oesophageal and some blood cancers.
The test works by checking for molecular changes which can serve as early warning signs of cancer.
Should the NHS programme show the test to work as expected for people without symptoms, it will be rolled out to become routinely available.
One of the ambitions of the NHS Long Term Plan, to increase the proportion of cancers caught early, could be significantly boosted should the test be proven suitable for regular use.
Early detection of cancer can be key to reducing its mortality. Patients whose conditions are diagnosed at ‘stage one’ typically have between five and 10 times the chance of surviving compared with those found at ‘stage four’.
NHS Chief Executive Sir Stevens said: “While the good news is that cancer survival is now at a record high, over a thousand people every day are newly diagnosed with cancer.
“Early detection – particularly for hard-to-treat conditions like ovarian and pancreatic cancer – has the potential to save many lives. This promising blood test could therefore be a game-changer in cancer care, helping thousands more people to get successful treatment.
“This trial again confirms that the NHS is at the forefront of cutting-edge treatments and technology.”
In England, around half of cancers are currently diagnosed at stage one or two but the NHS Long Term Plan is aiming to increase that to three quarters by 2028.
Due to start in mid-2021, the GRAIL pilot will involve 165,000 people. This will include 140,000 participants aged 50 to 79 who have no symptoms but will have annual blood tests for three years.
People will be identified through NHS records and approached to take part. Anyone with a positive test will be referred for investigation in the NHS. Another 25,000 people with possible cancer symptoms will also be offered testing to speed up their diagnosis after being referred to hospital in the normal way.
Results of these studies would be expected by 2023, and if outcomes are positive, then they would be expanded to involve around one million participants across 2024 and 2025.
Professor Peter Johnson, National Clinical Director for Cancer at NHS England and NHS Improvement said: "The NHS has set itself an ambitious target, to find three-quarters of cancers at an early stage, when they have the highest chance of cure.
“Tests like this may help us get there far faster, and I am excited to see how this cutting-edge technology will work out, as we test it in clinics across the NHS.”
Diana Jupp, CEO of Pancreatic Cancer UK, added: “It’s fantastic to see investment in such a large-scale pilot with the ambition to improve early diagnosis, not just for well-known cancers, but also for devastating diseases like pancreatic cancer that have been overlooked for so long.
"Three in five people with pancreatic cancer are diagnosed at an advanced stage. The lack of a simple test leaves thousands of families in the UK each year hearing the most heart-breaking news: that their loved one cannot have lifesaving treatment because it’s simply too late.
“This innovative blood test could make a real difference. However, it will be some time before we can know if it is both sensitive and accurate enough to help us overcome the biggest challenge to improving survival for the deadliest common cancer. Early diagnosis research is crucial for pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic Cancer UK has been investing in the development of a simple test specifically for pancreatic cancer through the Early Diagnosis Research Alliance.
"We very much welcome this news to further accelerate progress in this underfunded area of research. The last few weeks have shown all of us just how much can be achieved if we invest in this country’s brightest scientists. It’s now imperative that this pilot marks the beginning of sustained research investment by Government, so that we can transform the future for people affected by pancreatic cancer and other less survivable cancers.”