A Blood Test Improves Treatment Decisions and Quality of Life

July 6, 2010

Radiographic methods—such as CT scans are the current standard for monitoring the progression of tumors in patients diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Expensive, time-consuming, invasive and uncomfortable for patients, researchers have begun to seek alternative monitoring methods that will hopefully lead to earlier diagnosis of disease progression and improved quality of life for breast cancer patients.

Minetta Liu, MD, associate professor of Medicine and Oncology at Lombardi is passionate about improving the quality of her patients’ lives while they undergo treatment. As a physician and clinical researcher, Liu—realizing the impact of invasive treatment on her patient’s—began utilizing a simple blood test that measures Circulating Tumor Cells (CTCs) to effectively monitor disease progression in patients.

CTC tests allow physicians to use small patient blood samples to measure the levels of circulating tumor cells in breast cancer patients. Tumor cell levels are an effective indicator of disease progression and allow physicians to identify patient responses to treatment up to nine weeks earlier than CT scans which means physicians can be more proactive in adjusting treatment regimens to provide more effective agents earlier in their patient’s treatment course.

Blood tests are relatively cheap to perform and free of the unwanted side-effects such as discomfort and exposure to radiation. Potential benefits include reduced healthcare costs and improvements in patient’s overall quality of life. “It’s about how the patient feels,” says Liu. “We often forget about that.”

While CTC tests have the potential to greatly improve patient’s overall comfort and happiness, more timely evidence of disease progression is not yet proven to increase survival. Liu stresses the importance of advancing the field of circulating tumor cell analysis, including more sensitive methods of cell collection and identification and more detailed characterization of the cells themselves. A national clinical trial is currently underway to investigate the effects of early detection on survivability.

“It is possible that changing therapy with the earliest evidence of treatment failure will result in improvements in overall survival,” says Liu. “But this still needs to be proven. We are just getting started.”

Author: Amy Dusto and Nkem T. Wellington