A new era in cancer diagnostics
I have been interested in cancer since I started working as a lab technician at age 19. Today, I am Head of Research at Roche Molecular Diagnostics, comprising about 120 talented people. As a scientist, I can honestly say this is my dream job. Although I no longer have the opportunity to work in the lab, I am part of a team that is pushing into new frontiers of science. We take those insights and translate them into diagnostics that will help to better detect cancer and other serious diseases.
A good example is the EGFR mutation test, which detects the DNA of non-small-cell lung cancer in plasma—the yellowish liquid that remains when blood cells are removed from blood.
This liquid biopsy test runs on diagnostic platforms found in many community hospitals, which means faster results. It also means greater access to targeted therapies for patients, who often are not tested for EGFR mutations, even in developed countries, due to lack of tissue to test. Once they test positive with a liquid biopsy, patients can start targeted therapy.
Liquid biopsy technology offers many benefits to patients. Current practices for detecting cancer are based on microscopic examination of tumour tissue acquired by surgery or invasive biopsy. Some patients are simply too sick to undergo these procedures.
As a scientist, I can honestly say this is my dream job.
In addition to complementing tissue biopsy in detecting cancer, liquid biopsy has enormous broader diagnostic potential. My colleague, Lin Wu, hypothesised that we could use this technology to monitor patient response to treatment and the development of drug resistance.
When clinical results confirmed our hypothesis, it was a thrill for the whole team. We have the potential to personalise cancer therapy, just as we already do for HIV or hepatitis patients. There are many such occasions when the calibre of the scientific research conducted by my colleagues makes me proud.
Building on the EGFR mutation test we are exploring the application of this technology to colorectal, breast and other types of cancer.
We are also exploring liquid biopsies for actionable gene fusions as well as smaller genetic sequences such as micro-ribonucleic acids—opening exciting new horizons in terms of how we detect, treat and monitor cancer.