A simple blood test may be able to sound early warning bells that a patient with advanced skin cancer may be relapsing, a new study has found.
Scientists from the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute studied the DNA shed by tumours into the bloodstream - called circulating tumour DNA - in blood samples from seven advanced melanoma patients.
Researchers found that they could see whether a patient was relapsing by tracking levels of circulating tumour DNA. They also found that new mutations in genes like NRAS and PI3K appeared, possibly causing the relapse by allowing the tumour to become resistant to treatment.
Most melanoma patients respond to treatment at first but their cancer can become resistant within a year. It is hoped that these approaches will allow doctors to use circulating tumour DNA to tailor treatment for individual patients to get the best result.
Around 40 to 50 per cent of melanoma patients have a faulty BRAF gene and they can be treated with the targeted drugs vemurafenib or dabrafenib.
However, for many of these patients the treatments do not work, or their tumours develop resistance after a relatively short time.
When this happens these patients can be offered immunotherapy drugs including pembrolizumab, nivolumab and ipilimumab. Detecting this situation early could be key to improving their care and chances of survival, researchers said.
Around 14,500 people are diagnosed with melanoma and more than 2,100 people die from it every year in the UK, researchers said.
“Being able to spot the first signs of relapse, so we can rapidly decide the best treatment strategy, is an important area for research,” said lead author Richard Marais, of Cancer Research UK.
“Using our technique we hope that one day we will be able to spot when a patient’s disease is coming back at the earliest point and start treatment against this much sooner, hopefully giving patients more time with their loved ones,” Marais said.
“One of the sinister things about melanoma is that it can lay dormant for years and then suddenly re-emerge, probably as it escapes from the control of the body’s immune system,” said Peter Johnson, chief clinician at Cancer Research UK.
“Being able to track cancers in real time as they evolve following treatment has huge potential for the way we monitor cancers and intervene to stop them growing back,” Johnson said. The study was published in the journal Cancer Discovery.