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Current Limitations of Cancer Detection

February 16, 2022
Est. Reading: 3 minutes

Limitations of Cancer Detection

Cancer detection methods

Today's detection methods can't determine the location of mutated and cancer cells in the body. When it comes to cancer detection, scientists are limited to testing samples of blood or saliva for specific biological markers that correlate with the presence of cancer cells anywhere in the body. Once detected, a biopsy helps to determine if cancerous cells are invading healthy tissue.

The detection process, therefore, requires two invasive procedures: first, a test to determine whether cancer is present, and then a biopsy to confirm the presence of cancerous tissue. It is akin to finding a needle in a haystack: before you know if the hand exists, you must search through all the hay. 

Importance of Early Detection of Cancer

To detect cancer in its early stages, when it is most easily treated and cured, requires an earlier diagnosis. But this comes with significant caveats: the test must be able to distinguish between healthy cells and cancerous or pre-cancerous cells before they become visibly abnormal or symptomatic. Since researchers have yet to discover a foolproof biological marker that can identify cancer cells, there is currently no such test available.

Early cancer detection is thus limited to that determined by medical imaging, which detects physical abnormalities. Similarly, no test can determine the location of cancerous cells in the body. While there are some biological markers able to indicate their presence, they cannot pinpoint where in the body they are located.

The Cancer Tumor Environment

importance of early detection of cancer

  • The white represents a detected tumor mass that the current PET or MRI would see with Contrast.
  • The green dots would be determined as cancerous upon pathology review under a microscope after surgical removal (surgical margins were the orange line).
  • The red dots are cancer or muted cells isolated in good tissue.

Let's Talk About Cancer Detection Methods

Cancer cells share many common traits with healthy, normal cells.
To confirm that an abnormality is due to cancerous cells, a pathologist must histologically examine the cell structure and confirm malignancy (cancerous cells). The only way to get this information is through surgery or biopsy.

Preliminary tests that show promise for detecting cancer without invasive procedures include:

  • Flow cytometry separates white cells from blood based on their physical properties. It is used with fluorescent staining to determine the presence of proteins associated with certain cancers, such as CEA (carcinoembryonic antigen) and PSA (prostate-specific antigen). This test can help to detect cancer in the bloodstream.
  • Water-based ultrasound that uses sound waves to identify cells with a high water concentration is being tested on patients at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Doctors are using the test to predict the rate at which prostate cancer will progress after surgery.
  • CancerSEEK, a blood test developed by scientists at Johns Hopkins University, was shown in clinical trials conducted on 1,005 patients to accurately detect eight of the most common cancers (lung, colon, breast, or prostate). In addition to detecting cancer, the test can tell patients if they don't have cancer. Researchers presented the test at the 2017 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting in Chicago, and doctors are expected to have access to it within a year.
  • Digital Light-based Technology that uses light-emitting nanoparticles to identify cancerous cells in blood samples.
  • Non-invasive Prenatal Genetic Testing screens the mother's blood for fetal DNA to determine if the fetus has specific genetic abnormalities. This test does not necessitate amniocentesis, which involves drawing fluid from around an unborn baby in the uterus (womb). It is associated with a 0.1 to 0.5 percent risk of miscarriage.

early cancer detection

Current Limitations in Cancer Detection

Most current detection methods rely on identifying known biological markers for cancer, and these markers must be present in abnormally high numbers before they can indicate the presence of cancer. These tests are subject to false positives because other conditions may elevate marker levels. The same holds for screening tests looking for
early signs of cancer in healthy people. An elevated marker level is not definitive proof of cancer. Further biological testing is required to make an accurate diagnosis.
It is important to note that while there are many screening tests for various cancers available, there is no test that can detect all forms of cancer with equal accuracy.
Primary care physicians or specialists, such as general or gynecological oncologists, administer cancer screenings.
The National Cancer Institute recommends some cancer screening tests depending on the patient's age, gender, and family history. People usually receive these annually.

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