In a retail1
park in Runcorn in Cheshire [England], one of the world's largest clinical trials is getting underway.
The first of thousands of volunteers are giving blood samples – to be tested for the presence of tiny traces of DNA2
linked to tumours3
– a warning of future disease.
Volunteers like Stuart, a serving fire brigade officer.
Stuart Devereux, trial volunteer
It seemed a good opportunity to actually become involved with something. Sadly, most of us are touched by cancer at some time in our lives. I thought, well, actually early detection is one thing that is going to help in our armoury against that.
Detecting and treating cancer early is the key to a successful recovery. But some cancers, like those of the head and neck or the pancreas, are hard to spot in the early stages. This blood test could help – and avoid invasive procedures like biopsies.
Dominic Hughes, BBC correspondent
For years, scientists have been trying to develop a simple blood test that could detect cancers before any symptoms became obvious, but they really struggled because the tests just weren't accurate enough – there were either too many false positives or false negatives. Now, though, they think they have made a real breakthrough.
Sir Harpal Kumar, President, GRAIL Europe
So, technology is really what's made the difference here. First of all, we need to be able to detect really minute quantities of DNA in our blood, and our ability to do that has improved markedly over the last several years.
The second thing is the power of modern computing4
really – so we've looked at data from tens of thousands of people, and we've used that data to really optimise the test.
This is just the start of a clinical trial, but if the promise of this simple test is fulfilled, it could mark the beginning of a revolution in cancer treatment.