ASCO 2019 cancer news: Day 1 – the annual blood test debate

The world’s cancer specialists have landed in Chicago again to meet, discuss and share the latest in cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment. Close to 40,000 doctors and experts are gathering for the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting, the largest cancer conference in the world.

The research on show makes headlines. Lots of them. And this media coverage comes with several notes of caution. Most of the results being shared at the conference are a preliminary look at ongoing clinical trials, and in some cases those trials are at an early stage. The researchers are also tasked with delivering these updates in incredibly short talks. This, combined with the media’s hunt for a good story, means that details can sometimes be missed, confusingly presented or the scale and stage of a study not always made clear.

So, to help you judge the media stories for yourself, we’ve written this 6-point cheat sheet on what to look out for.

We’ll also be sharing a daily update of the latest headlines, and you can follow along with the conference on Twitter using #ASCO19.

Day 1 – Friday 31 May

Blood test next steps

Each year there are column inches dedicated to discussing whether now is the time that a ‘simple blood test’ for cancer has appeared on the scientific horizon. Day one of ASCO 2019 proved that this year is no exception. And, much like last year, the conclusion remains that there’s still a long way to go.

One company that many have their eye on, called GRAIL, released a glimpse of new, unpublished data ahead of a few of its conference presentations that was picked up by the media. Their goal is to develop a blood test for 12 types of cancer that can also say where in the body the cancer is growing. And there are 2 main takeaways from the latest data, which come from pilot studies of the test in 1,422 people known to have cancer and 879 who have not been diagnosed:

  1. So far, the experimental test can detect cancers with varying degrees of success across the 12 types – and the sensitivity ranged from detecting 34% of stage 1 cancers to 84% of stage 3, which could prove important if this is to become a test to detect cancers early.
  2. Of the cancers the test detected, it also correctly flagged where in the body the cancer had originally started growing in 9 in 10 cases.

GRAIL says these latest results show how they’re reaching a point where a balance can be struck between the test being sensitive enough to detect most cancers while minimising the chance that it suggests someone has cancer when they don’t. Trials with large numbers of people will be needed before it’s clear if that’s the case, and the company is already planning those. But there is a long way to go.

STAT News had an in-depth piece on the results if you have a subscription, as did Fierce Biotech.

Nick Peel, from the ASCO Annual Meeting in Chicago.

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