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Researchers improve blood tests’ ability to detect and monitor cancer

The advance makes it easier to detect circulating tumor DNA in blood samples, which could enable earlier cancer diagnosis and help guide treatment.

Tumors constantly shed DNA from dying cells, which briefly circulates in the patient’s bloodstream before it is quickly broken down. Many companies have created blood tests that can pick out this tumor DNA, potentially helping doctors diagnose or monitor cancer or choose a treatment.

The amount of tumor DNA circulating at any given time, however, is extremely small, so it has been challenging to develop tests sensitive enough to pick up that tiny signal. A team of researchers from MIT and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard has now come up with a way to significantly boost that signal, by temporarily slowing the clearance of tumor DNA circulating in the bloodstream.

The researchers developed two different types of injectable molecules that they call “priming agents,” which can transiently interfere with the body’s ability to remove circulating tumor DNA from the bloodstream. In a study of mice, they showed that these agents could boost DNA levels enough that the percentage of detectable early-stage lung metastases leapt from less than 10 percent to above 75 percent.

This approach could enable not only earlier diagnosis of cancer, but also more sensitive detection of tumor mutations that could be used to guide treatment. It could also help improve detection of cancer recurrence.

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