‘Holy grail’ trialled by NHS could save thousands of lives by detecting cancer before symptoms show

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A blood test for the over-50s being trialled by the NHS could prevent as many as one in ten cancer deaths in the UK.

The Health Service is conducting a world-first trial of the test, which aims to detect more than 50 types of cancer before symptoms show.

Although there are no results yet, researchers are optimistic that it has ‘enormous’ potential. Based on modelling, they believe the ‘Holy Grail’ test could prevent about 10 per cent of cancer deaths, of which there are around 167,000 in the UK every year – nearly 460 a day.

The breakthrough could save around 16,000 lives annually.

Hundreds taking part in the trial of 140,000 volunteers are already being referred for a scan or colonoscopy as a result of the test’s findings. It is expected around half of those referred could have cancer.

If the trial proves successful, the test will be rolled out to a million more people as early as 2024, then possibly nationwide.

If the test were made available across the UK and offered to around 18million adults aged 50 to 79, roughly 130,000 more people without symptoms would receive cancer screening referrals each year, assuming one in a hundred test positive as investigators expect.

British researchers believe the cancer test – by US company Grail – could be a ‘turning point’ in how the NHS tackles the disease.

Currently there are almost three million urgent cancer referrals annually, based on figures for the year to February, so the test would increase referrals by around 5 per cent.

The researchers point out that many of these referrals would happen anyway, but at a later date.

The NHS is grappling with a post-Covid backlog of cancer referrals, and leaked data this month showed more than 10,000 people are waiting for treatment three months after having been referred for suspected cancer. But it is hoped this situation will have changed by the time the test is potentially rolled out.

Professor Peter Sasieni, one of three lead investigators of the trial from King’s College London, said: ‘The potential of this blood test to dramatically cut the number of people who die from cancer is enormous. Of course, if the test is rolled out by the NHS, we will see some increase in short-term workload from the slightly higher number of referrals for cancer.

‘But in the long run, there should also be many savings for the NHS, such as a reduction in the need for chemotherapy and expensive drugs for advanced cancers.’

The blood test, called the Galleri test, picks up fragments of DNA linked to cancer which are shed into the blood, and can suggest which part of the body it has come from. It revolutionises the way cancer is detected, as most patients are currently diagnosed only after developing symptoms.

Based on modelling, they believe the ‘Holy Grail’ test could prevent about 10 per cent of cancer deaths, of which there are around 167,000 in the UK every year – nearly 460 a day

Based on modelling, they believe the ‘Holy Grail’ test could prevent about 10 per cent of cancer deaths, of which there are around 167,000 in the UK every year – nearly 460 a day

It will become clear only after the NHS trial results are published whether the test can prevent around 10 per cent of all cancer deaths, as the modelling suggests.

But the test provides hope for hard-to-detect cancers such as ovarian and pancreatic, which are usually picked up far too late.

The NHS trial, led by The Cancer Research UK and King’s College London Cancer Prevention Trials Unit, saw people aged 50 to 77 sent letters of invitation.

Those with a signal of cancer in their blood were referred for a scan within a two-week target, which is expected to apply if the blood test is offered routinely. Researchers are not yet revealing what proportion of those referred to hospital in the NHS trial turned out to have cancer, but previous studies suggest it could be 30 to 70 per cent.

By comparison, less than 10 per cent of people referred to hospital following breast or bowel cancer screening will actually have cancer. Half of people in the NHS trial did not have their blood sample tested. Their rate of advanced cancer will be compared with that of those given the test. If it is significantly higher, that suggests the test has prevented people developing an advanced cancer.

The 130,000 referrals in the UK using the cancer blood test is based on people aged 50 to 79 using it, if 70 per cent of them accepted the invitation.

Early results from the trial will be shared with the NHS in 2024.

Rose Gray, of Cancer Research UK, said: ‘Research like this is crucial for making progress against late-stage cancers, and giving more patients the chance of a good outcome.’

‘This test could prevent suffering like mine’

It took four years for Hollywood star Olivia Williams to learn her symptoms were the result of a very rare pancreatic cancer.

The British actress saw ten doctors across three continents as she worked on various films, but a tumour the size of two matchboxes in her pancreas went undiagnosed.

Now the 54-year-old, who is about to play Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown, is championing the Galleri test to detect early signs of pancreatic cancer before symptoms show.

Miss Williams, an ambassador for Pancreatic Cancer UK, has recovered from the disease, which is less deadly than the most common type. But she had half her pancreas, spleen and gallbladder removed, and must now take pills to digest food.

The mother-of-two said: ‘I spent four years suspecting something was wrong but not being sure. This test is the end of that, it’s a gift from the gods. It will prevent that second blow so many of us suffer – that not only do you have cancer, but that it has spread.’

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