Health care company Johnson & Johnson has announced a $30 million commitment to do further investigation on developing a blood test designed to detect cancer cells in the blood, an approach that investigators have long hoped could revolutionize cancer detection. The American Cancer Society has supported research in this area, including a one-year fellowship to Dino DiCarlo, Ph.D. in 2007, and a just concluded three-year research grant to Shannon Stott, Ph.D., two of the scientists on the team that invented the test highlighted in today’s report.
Here’s what Len Lichtenfeld, M.D., deputy chief medical officer, had to say about the news today.
“The announcement this morning that medical researchers from several highly regarded cancer research centers along with a major medical diagnostics company are moving forward with further development and testing of a technology which can isolate single cancer cells in a blood sample is exciting and important. The ability to sort through billions of normal cells to find a single cancer cell is a breakthrough in cancer research that has far-reaching—but still unconfirmed—implications for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, and possibly for cancer screening as well.
“Many researchers have been working on developing such tests, and this announcement moves the process forward in terms of bringing this technology to the clinic within the foreseeable future. At the same time, it is important to remember that this announcement is simply that: an announcement of another step in the scientific process to help us understand the true implications of this technology.
“As noted in the various media reports, researchers have been surprised to find circulating cancer cells in patients’ whose cancers were thought to be localized. Whether or not that discovery predicts the future behavior of a patient’s particular cancer—and whether or not treatment should be intensified as a result of such a finding—is not clear at this time.
“Going forward, researchers will certainly be looking for answers to the questions about the role of this technology, including for example whether or not it predicts more aggressive cancer behavior, whether it predicts and precedes clinical evidence of cancer response or progression after treatment with certain drugs, and whether or not a patient’s chemotherapy treatment can be modified based on analysis of single cancer cells circulating in the blood.
“It is likely that in the not too distant future this test or one similar to it will be evaluated as a screening tool for certain cancers, moving us further down the line to earlier detection of cancer. As a result, it will be important for us to redouble our efforts to determine which cancers will in fact cause harm to patients, since many researchers are concerned that earlier diagnosis could lead to potentially harmful and unnecessary treatments for cancers that would otherwise not be problematic for individuals.
“Researchers have been working on this and similar technologies for some time, and others have predicted a day when we will be able to diagnose cancers before they are otherwise visible by current techniques. It is appropriate to view announcements such as the one today with enthusiasm, but recognize that we must temper that excitement with the realization that there is still much research to be done to determine the true impact of this test on the treatment of patients with cancer.”
says he’ll have now has a more detailed discussion on his blog shortly.
Addendum: It turns out the relatively small grant Dr. Stott received from the American Cancer Society ($138,000 over three years) tells a compelling story on the state of research funding. Her original grant application was rejected by the National Institutes of Health due to the high risk nature of the research. Meanwhile, her proposal received a very high rating from the panel of experts who review proposed research to the American Cancer Society. But budget constraints left her below the funding line, meaning while her proposal was worthy of funding, there were more approved proposals than there was funding. It became what we call a “pay if” grant, about which you can read on our web site. Fortunately, the New England Division of the American Cancer Society learned of her promising work, and secured funding from local donors to keep it going. The significant commitment by Johnson and Johnson is a major step forward, and it was made possible in no small part by the American Cancer Society and its generous donors at a crucial time.