Time magazine considers liquid biopsies one of the top five investment opportunities of 2015. Investors considering new developments in healthcare like ideas that have the potential to change existing treatment protocols or dramatically impact an entire industry segment. These investors look for “disruptive innovation” or “impact investing” and many are actively engaged in helping bring the new personalized medicine break-through technology to market.
The liquid biopsy is one example of a relatively new idea that has the potential to change the life sciences industry and further scientific discovery.
In this blog, let's explore the potential benefits of liquid biopsies as a minimally invasive methodology. We'll also consider the challenges associated with the technology and explore how it may impact treatment protocols and strategies.
What is a liquid biopsy?
A liquid biopsy is a new type of blood test that has the potential to transform cancer treatment. Using this methodology, physicians avoid the traditional surgical and needle biopsies they use to determine the existence of cancer in patients.
Rather than take tissue samples from the tumor itself, the tests capture cancerous DNA that tumors shed into a patient's blood. They represent the first minimally invasive technique for sampling cancer cells and allow doctors to profile genes, develop treatment protocols and determine treatment efficacy.
Used in research for several years, the tests are now making their way into laboratories and physician’s offices and many expect them to further the practice of personalized medicine.
Real Life Examples with Actual Patients
In a recent Associated Press article, Marilyn Marcione reported that liquid biopsies are now making their way into main stream medicine and says that doctors at MD Anderson now use them for about 10 percent of their colon cancer patients. More centers around the country are now introducing them for other cancer types including the following real life examples:
- Gurpaul Bedi from Atlanta had colon cancer and doctors at MD Anderson discovered it had spread to his lungs. Through a liquid biopsy, the doctors were able to avoid a lung biopsy which is typically a difficult procedure.
- In Philadelphia, a liquid biopsy detected patient Carole Linderman's breast cancer recurrence months earlier than it would have normally been found.
How and when are liquid biopsies used?
The AP article further reports that the tests are “mostly used when a tissue biopsy can’t easily be done,” or when existing drugs and protocols create uncertainty. While a conventional tissue sample only checks one section of a tumor at a time, the liquid biopsy allows doctors to secure a more complete sample in a much shorter time period and make necessary adjustments much faster. They can actually monitor how a disease is progressing and make real time changes to their treatment protocols.
Emerging versions of the protocol allow physicians to move quickly, identify free-floating cancer DNA, enable gene profiling, and develop personalized approaches to treatment.
What are the benefits of utilizing this method?
The most important benefits of the new protocol are in the amount of time it takes to secure and process samples and the ability to conduct a more complete analysis of the cancer. And, of course, the liquid biopsy is much less invasive and does not require surgery. With more accurate profiling, patients and insurers may avoid the cost of ineffective drugs.
The most important benefit, however, comes from the realization that liquid biopsies offer earlier detection, as one industry executive points out in the article, “Why does there have to be a tumor? The tumor is a symptom <whereas> the disease is in the DNA.”
What are the challenges associated with liquid biopsies?
As with any new protocol, there are challenges associated with liquid biopsies. Currently, the tests are very costly and some insurers may not cover them. One of the fundamental benefits behind the tests, however, is the ability to do more tests more quickly. This adds to the cost and insurers are reluctant to cover these multiple tests until they understand it may avoid the cost of inexpensive drugs that are not effective.
Furthering scientific discovery
Because tumor genomes are not static and retract in response to therapies, researchers are using liquid biopsies to demonstrate how mutations are not permanent. They report that by continually monitoring the progress of a treatment using liquid biopsies they have a clearer picture of whether or not a therapy is effective. They intend to use the biopsies as a scientific discovery tool in identifying resistance mechanisms and then develop new assays for monitoring mutations.
While still a relatively new protocol, liquid biopsies are quickly gaining momentum and many doctors and patients are benefiting from their use. They offer a minimally invasive way of tracking cancer mutations and allow physicians to introduce personalized cancer treatments.
The most effective approach to addressing cancer is prevention, and if treatment is necessary, it is best at an early stage, which is associated with much higher survival rates as well as lesser side effects. To learn more about innovative, well-validated screening test for cancer detection, download our eBook Smart Biobanking: From Samples to Predictive Algorithms for Detecting Cancer.