Dr Marius Conradie talks about the new robotic prostate cancer surgery and how it is going to be a much better method for patients who have cancer works, it was launched at Netcare Christian Barnard Hospital. Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha

A new test that detects aggressive prostate cancer from a blood sample could save thousands of lives.

It can show when a tumour is a type that could spread quickly in the body, research suggests.

The test identifies prostate cancer patients with aggressive forms of the disease, whose risk of dying is ten times higher than men with slow-growing, relatively harmless tumours. This allows doctors to personalise the treatments given to the individual at an early stage, say scientists at Queen Mary University of London.

It may also spare men with slow-growing forms of the disease unnecessary surgery or radiotherapy.

The test is one of the first in a range of ‘liquid biopsies' that experts believe will revolutionise cancer treatment. A patient's blood sample is examined using a highly sensitive technique that can detect tiny amounts of cells that are shed by a tumour as it grows.

This allows doctors to calculate the risk the disease will spread through the body.

An initial trial, published today in the Clinical Cancer Research medical journal, found that the method identifies patients whose cancers will metastasise – spread – with 92 per cent accuracy. Existing techniques involve a painful biopsy and expensive scans, are thought to be only 80 per cent accurate and can be done only once the tumour has already spread.

Study leader Dr Yong-Jie Lu, from the Barts Cancer Institute at Queen Mary, said last night: "This will mean we can spot metastatic prostate cancer earlier, and so we have an increased chance of controlling the disease. It will save lives."

About 47,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer in the UK each year but the severity of the disease varies hugely. Rapid treatment for men with aggressive forms is vital, and could be lethal if delayed – 11,300 men die each year from the disease.

Some 90 per cent of all cancer deaths are among those whose cancer has metastasised. Among men diagnosed late with aggressive prostate cancer, only 22 per cent survive for ten years – compared with 99 per cent who are diagnosed very early.

Many others have localised, low-grade tumours which are slow growing and could be left for years without threatening a patient's life – currently 20,000 have unnecessary radiotherapy or surgery each year.

The new test, which is cheaper than a scan or a biopsy, uses cell-capture technology to collect tumour fragments that have broken away from the primary cancer.

It also picks up megakaryocytes, large bone marrow cells that generate platelets and appear to aid prostate cancer survival. The test was trialled on 81 prostate cancer patients in London and the team is now embarking on a much larger trial across the country.

Lu said: "We are also working to see if this test can be used on other types of cancer. In five years we could be seeing this on the NHS."

The method is being tested for the detection of breast, lung, ovarian and blood cancers.

US professor Bert Vogelstein told the American Society for Clinical Oncology conference in Chicago this month that the tests could eventually prevent 45 per cent of cancer deaths by diagnosing tumours before patients develop symptoms.

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