Recent advances such as immune, cellular, and targeted therapies have provided new and effective means to treat a variety of cancers. Despite this considerable progress, cancer caught in its earliest stages remains the most curable. That is why Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is opening a new clinical trial to evaluate a minimally invasive blood test that will look for the earliest signs of cancer that may be present in the bloodstream before the disease has progressed to a point where it causes symptoms. The research team is aiming to enroll hundreds of individuals in this clinical study over the next several weeks.
In earlier studies, researchers from Dana-Farber and the Mayo Clinic found that a blood test (developed by GRAIL) could detect more than 50 types of cancer as well as their location within the body with a high degree of accuracy. The overall specificity of the test was 99.3%, and the sensitivity of the assay for 12 cancers that account for nearly two-thirds of U.S. cancer deaths was 67.3%.
Dana-Farber and other major cancer centers across the country are now participating in the PATHFINDER study to help researchers further refine this blood test and understand how it might be integrated into routine clinical care. Participation in the study involves providing a medical history and completing a questionnaire, followed by a blood sample drawn by a trained practitioner. Results of the test are then communicated to participants within 30 days. Most patients will have a negative test result. Those who have a positive test result will undergo a workup conducted by their own physicians or by Dana-Farber physicians to see whether there is any evidence of cancer.
Enrollment in PATHFINDER is open to adults older than age 50 without a history of cancer or to cancer survivors older than age 50 who have been free of cancer for at least 3 years. The study is open to those who receive care through the Mass General Brigham HealthCare system, including anyone who has received care at Dana-Farber, Mass General, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, North Shore Medical Center, and other Mass General Brigham affiliates. Interested study participants can sign up or find out more information by e-mailing PATHFINDERSTUDY@DFCI.HARVARD.EDU.
The blood test uses next-generation sequencing to analyze the arrangement of methyl groups on the DNA of cancer cells that are circulating in the bloodstream. Adhering to specific sections of DNA, methyl groups help control whether genes are active or inactive. In cancer cells, the methylation pattern is often markedly different from that of normal cells—to the extent that abnormal methylation patterns are even more characteristic of cancer cells than genetic mutations are. When tumor cells die, their DNA, with methyl groups firmly attached, empties into the blood, where it can be analyzed by the new test.