A whole bunch of you, TGB readers, sent me a medical story published this week about the development of a deceptively simple test for pancreatic cancer – nothing more than a smartphone app called BiliScreen that uses the whites of a person's eyes to diagnose the disease.
PANCREATIC CANCER TEST
The reason the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is only nine percent is that there are few symptoms and no tests to catch it before it has spread.
”One of the earliest symptoms of pancreatic cancer, as well as other diseases, is jaundice, a yellow discoloration of the skin and eyes caused by a buildup of bilirubin in the blood,” reports Science Daily.
“The ability to detect signs of jaundice when bilirubin levels are minimally elevated - but before they're visible to the naked eye – could enable an entirely new screening program for at-risk individuals...
“In an initial clinical study of 70 people, the BiliScreen app...correctly identified cases of concern 89.7 percent of the time, compared to the [bilirubin] blood test currently used.”
Of course, much more testing is needed but it sounds good, right? Well, pardon my skepticism.
For the 20-odd years I've been studying ageing, I've been subscribing to a variety of reports on health and medical developments and have been disappointed again and again.
They generally sound as amazing as this one and the medical media excitedly report them as breakthroughs that are “closer than you think.” And then they disappear never to be heard of again. And in this case, I wonder what who is "at risk" for pancreatic cancer. Until my diagnosis, no one ever mentioned that it was a potential problem for me.
Nevertheless, how I hope this is not one of the advances that disappears. I was lucky my diagnosis was early enough to treat. I would hope that everyone who is told they have pancreatic cancer could, like me, be eligible for the surgery. Early diagnosis is not a cure, but it does give a patient a better shot at it.
BLOOD TESTS TO DETECT CANCER
Also announced this month are several reports of the development of blood tests for cancer. In one, from the American Council on Science and Health, a test for a certain type of DNA would allow cancers to be detected at earlier, and therefore more treatable, stages:
”It was tested in people who were in an early stage of four different types of cancer: colorectal, breast, lung and ovarian. Using this approach, they examined 58 cancer-related genes.
“Out of the patients studied that were in the earliest stage of cancer (stage I), the ctDNA was detected in 50% with colorectal, 67% with breast, 45% with lung, and 67% with ovarian cancer.
“An even higher percentage of people were able to be detected from the pool of people with more advanced cancer."
A lot of researchers, including my surgeon, have been working to develop a blood test for cancer for a long time and they are increasingly encouraged. This, of course, would be wonderful for the same reason the Biliscreen app would be: earlier detection.
Here's my question about this one: All the test subjects had already been diagnosed with a certain cancer. If people not known to have cancer are tested, how would doctors know what kind of cancer the patient has?
Yes, I'm a skeptic. I've been disappointed too many times with “breakthrough” announcements and it seems to me that most advances in health care are rarely of the quantum leap variety and more of the small incremental steps variety.
But that doesn't mean I'm not hopeful.