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Discovery holds promise for a new oesophageal cancer screening test

One of Australia’s most deadly cancers could in future be detected earlier, and with a simple blood test, thanks to research from QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute.

Scientists have identified a group of proteins that are highly accurate at detecting a common form of oesophageal cancer in its earliest stages.

The markers could be used to develop a screening test for oesophageal adenocarcinoma, which would save lives by detecting more of the cancers at an earlier stage.

The project was led by the head of the Precision and Systems Biomedicine Laboratory, Associate Professor Michelle Hill, in collaboration with other QIMR Berghofer scientists and researchers from Australia and the United States.

“The problem with oesophageal cancer is that many patients don’t show symptoms, so it is usually not diagnosed until very late,” Associate Professor Hill said.

“Tragically, most patients don’t survive for more than a year after diagnosis. However, when it is diagnosed early, oesophageal cancer is treatable.

“At the moment oesophageal cancer is screened for and detected via an endoscopy. However, endoscopies are expensive and their use as a screening method carries some risks.

“We hope to use this group of proteins – which are present in the blood of oesophageal cancer patients – to develop a simple, cost-effective, early screening test for oesophageal adenocarcinoma. Patients who test positive could then be given an endoscopy to confirm and diagnose the cancer.

“This would mean more oesophageal cancers would be detected at an early stage, which would save lives.

“It is similar to the current process for bowel cancer, where certain sections of the population are screened via a faecal blood test and positive or high-risk patients are given colonoscopies.”

Cancer Australia estimates that in 2018, 1685 Australians will be diagnosed with oesophageal cancer and 1447 will die from it. Rates of the disease are on the rise. Oesophageal adenocarcinomas account for approximately half of all oesophageal cancer cases in Australia.

Associate Professor Hill’s team developed a new method to identify the markers, and conducted a study to validate the results.

“We tested more than 300 blood samples from patients in Australia and the US with either Barrett’s oesophagus, early-stage cancer, or more advanced oesophageal adenocarcinoma,” she said.

“The data showed that monitoring blood levels of these 10 proteins can provide an accurate indication of the presence of oesophageal cancer.

“Importantly, the marker levels start to change when Barrett’s oesophagus – a precursor condition to oesophageal cancer – starts to turn into cancer. These promising results suggest that the markers can accurately detect the cancer from an early stage.”

The findings have been published in the journal Molecular and Cellular Proteomics.