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Scientists Aim for Test That Spots Single Cancer Cell in Blood Sample
Date:1/4/2011

imo Cristofanilli, professor and chairman of medical oncology at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. "Simple enumeration tells us that this patient has a worse prognosis . . . Now the question is, what other information we can gather, if we are able to capture these cells? For example, could we do gene analysis profiling and can we get information for the best treatment?"

As it stands today, biopsy -- an invasive and sometimes even hazardous procedure -- is one of the few ways doctors can get key information about a cancer's size and characteristics.

"Many people consider [the new blood test to be] a 'liquid biopsy,' so that eventually we can access cancer cells that are representative of the tumor without performing an invasive biopsy," said Cristofanilli, who is not involved in developing the test.

Experts stressed that the new type of test, if it ever arises, may still be years away, and researchers still aren't sure what these circulating tumor cells (CTCs) actually mean.

"They may be able to detect small amounts of cancer cells but we don't know the significance of that. We may be detecting things that don't have clinical significance," explained Dr. Jay Brooks, chairman of hematology/oncology at Ochsner Health System in Baton Rouge, La.

And as Cristofanilli pointed out, these plans so far are "only for research. The test is not available for clinical use." Later this year, in fact, four major cancer centers -- Mass General, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, the University of Texas' M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston -- will begin studies using the latest microchip-based CTC test developed by Mass General.

Any such test would need to be developed "along with the process of new drug development and new targeted therapies so we can better use the information with a clinical purpose," Cristofanilli added.

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