Lung cancer tests: 70 years of progress

Lung cancer care has evolved rapidly over the decades as diagnostics and treatment become more precise and more personalised.

In the past, doctors classified lung cancer patients based on the size of the cancerous cells - small cell lung cancer, SCLC, or non-small cell lung cancer, NSCLC - by looking at the size of the tumour cells in tissue samples under a microscope.

However, it is now known that lung cancer is not just two diseases but instead many diseases which vary based on the type of lung cell from which the cancer originates and also the genetics of the cancer.

Although tissue biopsies are the gold standard, the limitations of this procedure led scientists to explore alternatives. Knowing that tumours release proteins, nucleic acids (such as DNA) and cancerous cells into the blood, researchers developed a simple blood test which provides invaluable information.

Profile head and shoulders of Joakim Jagorstrand, Lifecycle Leader for Genomics and Oncology at Roche
Joakim Jagorstrand, Lifecycle Leader for Genomics and Oncology at Roche

“Every year lung cancer claims 1.6 million people globally”, says Joakim Jagorstrand, Lifecycle Leader for Genomics and Oncology at Roche. “It makes lung cancer one of the deadliest forms of cancer. Innovations like the EGFR blood test are critical for the continued improvement of lung cancer patient management. Roche is committed to bringing new and innovative tests to our customers and patients.” 

This innovative new method for assessing the genetic status of a cancerous tumour in the blood stream is known as a liquid biopsy. It is, in essence, a blood test that provides the kind of diagnostic information previously available only through tissue biopsies.

Five millilitres of blood is taken from the patient. This is spun down in a lab to give two millilitres of plasma which can be tested. This method is well-suited to cancers such as lung cancer where the most suitable treatment options can vary depending on the type of cancer the patient has.

While complementing traditional biopsy techniques, liquid biopsies are a powerful new tool in the diagnostic armoury of cancer specialists. This non-invasive test enables clinicians to select the right treatment for the right patient.

It can also be used to track the progress of cancer patients; checking whether a tumour has responded to treatment or has developed new mutations that might prompt a change in treatment plan. In this way, liquid biopsies can be used not just for diagnosis but for serial measurement of the tumour, making for smarter, well-informed clinical decision-making throughout the patient journey.

“In the future, technology will allow clinicians to select therapies for their patient after initial diagnosis, but also to adapt therapy in response to changes in the tumour,” says Miro Venturi, Global Head of Diagnostics Markers at Roche.

This could be just the beginning an exciting new chapter. Find out more about The future of cancer care.

Tags: Lung cancer