In 2019, an estimated 1.7 million new cancer cases will be diagnosed in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. As patients and their families across the country grapple with how to manage and overcome this painful disease, clinical labs are busy developing and providing innovative methods to identify, diagnose and monitor cancer. From early detection and evaluating the best course of treatment, to monitoring a patient’s health once their cancer is in remission, clinical laboratory diagnostics support cancer moonshot goals every single day.
Clinical laboratory diagnostics have ushered in a new era of personalized medicine and continue to prove their value in the health system. Last month, the Wall Street Journal profiled new treatments that target tumors based on their genetic characteristics, providing a promising alternative to standard treatments like chemotherapy and radiation. Innovations in blood testing have also made headlines lately —TIME Magazine spotlighted a new blood test that recent research shows is as effective as a tissue sample at identifying important mutations in non-small cell lung cancers. This is a significant development for both patients and providers because a simple blood sample can replace the invasive collection of tissue.
The PSA test, a tumor marker test that identifies a prostate-specific antigen, has also received a lot of attention in recent months. In January, the Washington Post described the valuable information this test provides to patients, especially for African-American men. “It’s one of the easiest ways of finding out the truth about your body,” patient James Lyles told the Post after the test caught his prostate cancer.
These important tumor marker tests, which detect chemicals produced by tumor cells in patients’ blood, are one of the many tools that providers now use to identify certain cancers at an earlier stage. In addition to the prostate-specific antigen, other common identifiable tumor markers include cancer antigen 125 (CA 125) for ovarian cancer, calcitonin for medullary thyroid cancer and alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) for liver cancer.
Clinical laboratory diagnostics also serve an important function for patients after a cancer diagnosis. New gene sequencing tests allow doctors to quickly evaluate whether a tumor might be vulnerable to particular treatments or drug therapies – knowledge that helps patients and providers choose the best course of treatment.
Another common tool is a blood-chemistry test, which tracks the amounts of certain substances that are released into the blood by the organs and tissues of the body. Levels of certain substances present in these tests can help providers assess side effects of treatment and can even help monitor whether a disease has returned.
Year after year, labs play an ever-growing role in moving the scientific community closer to cures for cancer, helping providers better understand the disease and make the best choices for treatment. Looking to the future, lab tests will continue to serve as the basis for diagnoses, treatments and innovative solutions as patients and providers confront the most complicated medical challenges of our time.