What would be more useful than a better medicine? Not having to use medicine at all.
If you can find a cancer early enough, you may not need to use medicines like chemotherapy that have such harsh side effects. The best way to treat cancer is to find it early and remove it with surgery.
Scientists are working on ways to find cancers when they are small and haven't yet spread. This is easier for some cancers than others.
Some cancers we can see or feel when they appear. For example, skin cancer can be pretty obvious. And we can often find breast, testicular and prostate cancers by looking or feeling for lumps.
Other cancers can be found with tests in the doctor's office. Some tests, like a mammogram or the PSA blood test are easy enough that patients are pretty willing to have them done.
Other tests, though, are so intrusive that even though they are effective, many patients want nothing to do with them. The test for colon cancer is one of these.
The tests that exist for finding colon cancer early are incredibly effective. And incredibly intrusive.
The test, called a colonoscopy, involves snaking a camera into the patient to look at the inside of his or her colon. You can imagine the route the camera takes to get into the body.
And you can imagine how thrilled most people are by this test. Many of the 56,000 people who die each year from colon cancer could have caught it early if they had had a colonoscopy. But they didn't because the test is so unpleasant.
So scientists are trying to come up with a blood test for colon cancer instead. And this week they reported some encouraging progress on this front.
In about 85% of colon cancers, a gene called APC has been turned on. Researchers found they could detect the turned on APC gene in the patients' blood. So will the blood test replace the colonoscopy?
Probably not. It is important to note that the test didn't catch all colon cancers. Remember, 15% don't have the abnormal APC gene. And it won't catch the disease at its very earliest stagepremalignant growths.
In other words, the colonoscopy is here to stay. But this new test would find many cases of colon cancer that are missed today, if the work holds up.
So maybe more colon cancers can be caught early with a simpler test. But what about cancers for which there is no test at all?
Cancers like ovarian and pancreatic cancer are so deadly because there often is no sign of a problem until the cancer has spread. Once a cancer spreads, it is much more difficult to treat.
But there isn't an easy way to look at an ovary for example. There is no equivalent of a mammogram. So scientists are focusing on a blood test.
The first step in creating a blood test is to find something in the blood that is only there if there is a cancer. Researchers have found that two genes, N33 and NFA6R, are turned off pretty early on in many ovarian cancers. The hope is that these two genes might be used as markers for ovarian cancer.
Both the colon and ovarian cancer blood tests are at an early stage (with the colon cancer test being further along). Researchers don't even know if the genes found in the ovarian cancer can be easily seen in the blood.
In other words, both of these need a lot more testing before they can become tests themselves. But blood tests seem to be the way to go and scientists are furiously trying to find markers like these to identify cancers early.