Imagine doctors being able to find common cancers just by testing a little bit of blood. Sure would beat getting poked with a sharp needle, right?
Well today Johnson & Johnson and Massachusetts General Hospital announced a $30 million investment by the company in a partnership that aims to develop technology that could detect even a few cancers cells floating in a person's blood.
Mass General's Dr. Daniel Haber, one of the test's inventors, told the Associated Press, "This is like a liquid biopsy." The experimental test uses a plastic chip whose microscopic inner surfaces are covered in antibodies to grab cancer cells from the blood. Those cells can be analyzed in detail as well as counted.
Some early research has shown the approach has promise. It could, if all goes well, help doctors detect cancer and also to tailor treatment. But developing cool technology is one thing — making sure that it makes a difference in patient care is another.
The National Cancer Institute put together a lucid explanation of how the chips work, and also a cautionary note after a 2009 conference on the subject. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center's Dr. Howard Scher notes in the NCI piece that plucking the cancer cells from blood is just the start. Researchers have to show that the test results have prognostic value.
J&J's Veridex unit already sells a test called CellSearch to help guide treatment of metastatic forms of breast, prostate and colorectal cancer.
But the company discontinued a once highly touted genetic test to help surgeons figure out if breast cancer had spread to lymph nodes. The test, called GeneSearch, never caught on. It was expensive and gave quite a few false alarms. Surgeons weren't convinced it was so much better than what they had been doing.
Update: In an e-mail, a spokesman for Veridex said the collaboration with Mass General is "is just beginning," so there are "no details about what this future system will look like," except that it will be small enough to sit on a lab bench and will be able to zero in on the biology of rare cells.