The NHS is to trial a simple blood test that may help identify more than 50 forms of cancer years before diagnosis, in what it hailed as a potential “gamechanger”.
If successful the blood test, known as Galleri, could revolutionise early diagnosis of cancer and save many lives by identifying symptoms quickly enough for prompt treatment to make the difference between life and death.
The blood test will be offered to 165,000 people in England from mid-2021, the vast majority of whom have no signs of the disease.
NHS England hopes the test may prove particularly useful at detecting early signs of cancers that are hard to spot and so have worse survival rates, such as ovarian and pancreatic cancer.
Sir Simon Stevens, NHS England’s chief executive, said: “Early detection, particularly for hard to treat conditions like ovarian and pancreatic cancer, has the potential to save many lives. This promising blood test could therefore be a gamechanger in cancer care, helping thousands more people to get successful treatment.”
If the trial finds that the blood test can detect cancers early it will become routinely available later this decade.
The 165,000 people who will be offered the test will be aged between 50 and 79. Of them 140,000 will be symptom free. They will be identified through NHS records, randomly selected and invited to join the trial. Those in the trial will have a blood test every year for three years to check for the presence of malignant growths.
The other 25,000 people will be those identified by their GP as having possible signs of cancer, such as a lump or discharge. They will have to give a blood sample, as well have conventional tests such as a CT or MRI scan, to speed up the diagnosis.
NHS England believes the Galleri tests could lead to people with cancer being diagnosed several years before that would otherwise happen. The tests could also pinpoint where in the body cancer was developing, they said.
If the results in 2023 show the test works, the NHS will recruit a million other people to a much larger trial in 2024 and 2025.
The Galleri blood test, which checks for molecular changes, has been developed by Grail, a California-based company which is using science and technology to find ways of identifying cancer in its early stages.
Lord Prior, NHS England’s chairman, said he hoped that the link-up with Grail would help reduce the numbers of people, almost 200,000 in the UK, who died of cancer each year. “Many of these people are diagnosed too late for treatment to be effective,” he said.
The tests could help the NHS fulfil its pledge to increase the proportion of cancer sufferers whose disease is caught early, at stage one, from 50% to 75%. People whose cancer is detected at that stage have between five and 10 times a greater chance of surviving than those who are only identified at stage four.
Lawrence Young, a professor of molecular oncology, at Warwick University, said the Galleri test was one of several novel blood tests being developed to spot cancer early on. “A publication from the Circulating Cell-free Genome Atlas consortium examining the Galleri test in 6,689 participants has generated very encouraging results in more than 50 different cancers at different stages of development.”
However, some cancer experts disagreed about the possible effectiveness of Galleri. Paul Pharoah, a professor of cancer epidemiology, at Cambridge University, claimed the NHS was prematurely embracing a test that had yet to be proven to work.
“The Galleri blood test is a test that might be able to detect cancer in the blood in individuals with early cancer, though the evidence that it does this effectively is weak,” Pharoah said. He said the one available published paper on the tests found they detected just 25% of early-stage cancers and fewer than half of late-stage cases of the disease.
Cancer charities welcomed the trial. Annwen Jones, Target Ovarian Cancer’s chief executive, said: “At the moment two-thirds of women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed late, when the cancer is much harder to treat. This test, if proven to be effective, could be a major turning point in diagnosing ovarian cancer in this country, saving thousands of lives every year.”
Sir Harpal Kumar, Grail’s president in Europe, and a former chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said: “Galleri, a simple blood test that’s capable of detecting more than 50 cancers, is a groundbreaking and potentially life-saving advance that could have a tremendous human and economic benefit.”