Doug Flora, MD, knows the value of early cancer detection because it helped him survive kidney cancer 5 years ago. But as a medical oncologist and hematologist, and the executive medical director of oncology services at St. Elizabeth Healthcare in Edgewood, Ky., he also knows that a new era of early cancer detection testing poses big challenges for his network of six hospitals and 169 specialty and primary care offices throughout Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana.
Multicancer early detection (MCED) tests are finally a reality and could be a potential game changer because they can screen for the possibility of up to 50 different cancers in asymptomatic individuals with one blood draw. They represent one of the fastest growing segments in medical diagnostics with a projected value of $2.77 billion by 2030, according to the market research firm.
These tests are different from traditional liquid biopsies, which are designed to identify actionable gene mutations to help inform treatment decisions of patients already diagnosed with cancer. Instead, MCED tests work to detect fragments of circulating free DNA that have been shed by tumors and released into the bloodstream. Detecting these cancer signals could indicate that an individual has cancer well before they ever develop symptoms.
For some cancer types, particularly those commonly diagnosed at advanced stages or those without general population screening tests, MCED testing could have a significant impact.
In its new report, Grand View Research highlights nine “prominent players” active in the MCED market; of these, two have been granted breakthrough device designation by the Food and Drug Administration: OverC MCDBT by Burning Rock on Jan. 3, 2023, and Galleri by Grail in 2019. Galleri was launched in June 2021 and can be obtained with a prescription at a cost of $949.
Yet, while patients are asking for these tests and primary care physicians are prescribing them, oncologists are grappling with how to manage the first patients whose tests tell them they may have cancer.
Ordering the tests may seem straightforward, but in reality, it is not. In fact, they are so new that most health systems have no internal guidelines for physicians. Guidelines would address when the tests should be prescribed, and whether a patient should undergo more testing or be referred to an oncologist.
Clinical trials underway
There are currently at least 17 clinical trials underway to investigate the performance and clinical utility of MCED tests. Six of these involve Grail, includingthe largest study to date of 140,000 participants in the United Kingdom where participants will be followed for 3 years with annual visits at 12 and 24 months. And, the National Cancer Institute is spearheading a of its own, according to a search of ClinicalTrials.gov.
In September 2022, Grail presented findings from its pivotalat the annual meeting of the European Society of Medical Oncology. Researchers reported that cancer signals were detected in 1.4% (92) of 6,621 participants enrolled in the study. Of the 92, 35 people were diagnosed with 36 cancers: 19 were solid tumors (2 oropharyngeal, 5 breast, l liver, 1 intrahepatic bile duct, 2 colon/rectum, 2 prostate, 1 lung, 1 pancreas, 1 small intestine, 1 uterus, 1 ovary and 1 bone) and 17 hematologic cancers (1 plasma cell myeloma/disorders, 2 lymphoid leukemia, 2 Waldenström’s macroglobulinemia, and 12 lymphoma).
Almost half of newly diagnosed cases were cancers in stage 1 or 2. Of stage 1 cancers, three were solid tumors and four were hematologic cancers. Of stage 2 cancers, three were solid tumors and four were hematologic cancers. All other cancers were in stage 3 and 4 or were listed as recurrent or no stage. Deb Schrag, MD, MPH, chair of the department of medicine at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, who presented the results from PATHFINDER at ESMO, reported that, of all diagnosed cancers, only breast, colon/rectum, prostate, and lung have established screening protocols.
The findings were so striking that the meeting scientific co-chair,, told ESMO the oncology field must prepare for an onslaught of new patients.
“Within the next 5 years, we will need more doctors, surgeons and nurses with more diagnostic and treatment infrastructures to care for the rising number of people who will be identified by multicancer early detection tests,” said Dr. André, who is director of research at Gustave Roussy Cancer Center, Villejuif, France, and future president of ESMO (2025-2026). “We need to involve all stakeholders in deciding new pathways of care. We need to agree who will be tested and when and where tests will be carried out, and to anticipate the changes that will happen as a result of these tests.”
But first, he urged, the need for comparative trials “across all types of cancer to find out if having an early detection test affects morbidity and mortality. We also need to know how the tests benefit patients, and how to discuss the results with them,” Dr. André said.