An experimental blood test may improve screening for the most common form of liver cancer, researchers at the U.S. National Cancer Institute say.
The test checks people for previous exposure to certain viruses that may interact with the immune system and increase the risk of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), according to their new study.
“Together with existing screening tests, the new test could play an important role in screening people who are at risk for developing HCC. It could help doctors find and treat HCC early,” said study leader Xin Wei Wang, co-leader of the NCI Center for Cancer Research liver cancer program.
“The method is relatively simple and inexpensive, and it only requires a small blood sample,” he said in an institute news release.
Many screening tests detect features of cancer cells, but those features can change over time, and not all cancer cells in a tumor have the same characteristics, the authors noted. Rather than focus on cells, the new test detects features of the cancer’s environment — signs left behind by past viruses.
Infection with hepatitis B or hepatitis C virus, or cirrhosis of the liver are among the factors that increase the risk of HCC. It’s recommended that people with risk factors get screened for HCC every six months, undergoing an ultrasound with or without a blood test for alpha-fetoprotein.
If HCC is caught early, there’s a much better chance that it can be cured. But most patients are diagnosed when the cancer is advanced and often incurable.
“We need a better way to identify people who have the highest risk for HCC and who should get screened more frequently,” Wang said.
Improving early detection and monitoring of HCC are particularly important because HCC rates are rising in the United States.
The researchers are continuing to study their blood test and plan to assess it in clinical trials.
The study was published June 10 in the journal Cell.