Tagged: autoantibody biomarkers

  • Bioengineers throughout the world are competing to achieve the Holy Grail: an affordable, point-of-care blood test - liquid biopsy - that detects cancer before any symptoms present
  • Success in achieving this will save millions of lives, substantially reduce healthcare costs and make investors, researchers and organisations billions
  • Despite significant advances no one has yet achieved the Holy Grail and there remains a substantial gap between researchers’ aspirations and reality
  • How close are we?


Finding the Holy Grail: early detection tests for cancer


“It’s too soon to even claim that the research is promising," commented Paul Pharoah, a professor at Cambridge University’s Centre for Cancer Genetic Epidemiology, on the research findings of  Daniyah Alfattani, a PhD student in the Centre of Excellence for Autoimmunity in Cancer (CEAC) at Nottingham University’s School of Medicine in the UK.
Alfattani was presenting research findings of a small study at the National Cancer Research Institute’s (NCRI) conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2019, which is an international forum for showcasing cancer advances.
A September 2019 HealthPad Commentary described another early detection test for breast cancer called CanRisk, which has been developed by researchers from Cambridge University’s Centre for Cancer Genetic Epidemiology and  has the potential to identify women with different levels of risk of breast cancer.
Alfattani and bioengineers from the universities of Nottingham and Cambridge are players in a vast and rapidly evolving international army of researchers engaged in an intensely competitive global race to develop an affordable, point-of-care, early detection test (EDT) for cancer based upon a liquid biopsy and next generation sequencing technologies. The Holy Grail is for such a test to detect cancer cells in an asymptomatic patient, locate the tissue of origin and give that person an early diagnosis when treatment is more likely to be successful; and to do all this with 100% accuracy. 

Although Alfattani’s research study is modest, her findings are potentially clinically relevant because they are on the Holy Grail therapeutic pathway, and her preliminary findings suggest that a simple, cheap and easy-to-use blood test - liquid biopsy - could detect breast cancer five years before any symptoms present. If demonstrated to be exquisitely accurate, safe and efficient by a larger study, which already is underway at Nottingham University’s CEAC, Alfattani’s research could be a key to saving thousands of lives and substantial amounts of money.


Gold standard breast cancer screening
Currently, mammography screening is the gold standard for preventing and controlling breast cancer, which is costly to administer and only has a sensitivity between 72% and 87%.  For every death from breast cancer that is prevented by mammography screening, it is estimated there are three false-positive cases detected and treated unnecessarily. Further, nearly half of all cancer sufferers are diagnosed late, when their tumours have already metastasized. It is estimated that 30% to 40% of cancer deaths could be prevented by early detection and treatment.
In this Commentary
This Commentary provides a partial update of some bioengineering initiatives described in a 2016 HealthPad Commentary, to speed up and improve liquid biopsies, which can simultaneously detect cancer early and identify its tissue of origin. Although there have been significant developments, the challenge for liquid biopsy assays still remains the level of their positive predictive values. This Commentary provides a brief and partial epidemiology of breast cancer, describes Alfattani’s research and its findings and briefly mentions some similar research that is underway. We describe categories of biomarkers employed by researchers and indicate some advances in EDTs made by some giant biopharma companies as well as briefly describing another innovative university-based development. We conclude by suggesting that: (i) despite significant and well supported research endeavours over the past decade to develop EDTs, there still remains a gap between scientific aspirations and reality; and (ii) there appears to be a gap opening between commercially available personalised cancer therapies, which are by-products of EDT research and standard oncological therapies.
Partial epidemiology of breast cancer
Despite significant advances in the awareness, diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, it still remains the most common cancer in women worldwide, contributing 25.4% of the total number of new cases of cancer diagnosed in 2018. Each year, more than 0.5m women throughout the world die from the condition.  In the US each year, over 268,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer are diagnosed in women, and over 41,000 women die from breast cancer. Between 1989 and 2016, death rates from female breast cancer in the US dropped by 40%. Over the past decade, death rates from breast cancer in older women in the US continued to decrease but remained steady in women under 50. Such decreases are attributed to increased awareness of the condition, earlier detection through screening and improved treatments. In the UK, there are over 55,000 new breast cancer cases diagnosed each year. In contrast to the US, since the early 1990s, breast cancer incidence rates in the UK have increased by around 19%, but death rates have fallen because of greater awareness, earlier detection and enhanced therapies. Notwithstanding, each year more than 11,000 women in the UK die from breast cancer. Furthermore, each year in the US, there are over 1.7m new diagnoses of all cancers, while in the UK there are over 360,000 new cases. Although recent advances in EDTs have the potential to decrease cancer deaths, as yet there is not a simple and cheap liquid biopsy, which can be used routinely  in clinics to diagnose a range of cancers early. .
Alfattani’s research
The research pursued by Alfattani and her Nottingham colleagues is predicated upon the fact that cancer cells produce proteins called antigens, which trigger the body to make antibodies against them. These are called “autoantibodies”. Researchers discovered that these tumour-associated antigens (TAAs) are good indicators (biomarkers) of cancer. Alfattani and her colleagues developed panels of TAAs, which are known to be linked with breast cancer as a technique to detect whether or not there are autoantibodies against them in blood samples taken from patients.

The Nottingham researchers took blood samples from 90 breast cancer patients at the time they were diagnosed with the disease and matched them with samples taken from 90 patients without breast cancer (the control group). Researchers employed technology (protein microarray), which allowed them to screen the blood samples for the presence of autoantibodies against 40 TAAs associated with breast cancer and also 27 TAAs not known to be linked with the disease. The accuracy of the test improved in the panels that contained more TAAs.


A panel of five TAAs correctly detected breast cancer in 29% of the samples from the cancer patients and correctly identified 84% of the control group as being cancer-free. A panel of seven TAAs was able to detect disease in 35% of cases with breast cancer and rule out 79% of patients in the control group. The most successful technique was a panel of nine antigens, which correctly identified the disease in 37% of cancer samples and no cancer in 79% of the controls. “The results of our study showed that breast cancer does induce autoantibodies against panels of specific tumour-associated antigens. . . . . The results are encouraging and indicate that it is possible to detect a signal for early breast cancer. Once we have improved the accuracy of the test, then it opens the possibility of using a simple blood test to improve early detection of the disease”, said Alfattani.

David Crosby, head of early detection at the Cancer Research UK charitysaid, “Diagnosing cancer at the earliest stages before it grows or spreads gives patients the best chance that their treatment will be successful. So, the potential to detect markers in the blood before other signs appear is promising”.
Similar studies
Nottingham University’s CEAC is also working on similar tests to that used by Alfattani for pancreatic, colorectal and liver cancers. Solid tumours like these, as well as lung and breast cancer, represent around 70% of all cancers. Further, a similar test for lung cancer is currently being tested in a randomised controlled clinical study in Scotland, which is believed to be the largest trial of its kind in the world, involving 12,000 people at high risk of developing lung cancer because they smoke.
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Participants in the study have been randomly assigned to two groups: one is given an autoantibody blood test and the other (the control group ) is not. Participants who test positive for the autoantibodies are then followed up with a CT scan every two years in order to detect lung cancer in its early stages when it is easier to treat. Findings suggest that the test detects lung cancer four years or more before standard clinical diagnosis. In the UK about 85% of lung cancer patients are left undiagnosed until the disease has spread to other parts of the body.


Liquid biopsies

Liquid biopsies require biomarkers, which are substances, structures, or processes in your body that can be analysed in order to explain the pathogenesis of cancer and other disease states, and thereby inform diagnosis, predict onset and suggest appropriate therapies. Notwithstanding, the multiple types of biomarkers have varying degrees of reliability. Initially, the principal focus of research into EDTs was largely focussed on circulating tumour cells (CTC) and DNA. More recently however, additional biomarkers have become an important focus for such research. Antibodies are just one type of molecular biomarker. Because antibodies function by binding specific antigens, attempts to identify antibody biomarkers have involved using antigens to capture antibodies that are overproduced in cancer. Identifying relevant antigens is critical for discovering antibody biomarkers. Array-based approaches employed by Alfattani and her colleagues depend on exposing serum samples from patients to an ordered array of putative antigens, capturing those antibodies that bind antigens on the arrays and measuring their levels. Antibodies that are present at significantly higher levels in the serum of patients with breast cancer, (compared to control serums from healthy patients) are candidate biomarkers. 
Because of the unreliability of such biomarkers, new liquid biopsy tests tend to be predicated upon the levels of cell-free DNA (cfDNA), circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA) and exosomes. These also pose challenges because of the varying physiological levels of the different biomarker fragments in your bloodstream.
cfDNA refers to DNA molecules that circulate in your blood after cell death. The amount of cfDNA varies significantly depending on the location, type and stage of your cancer. Concentrations of cfDNA can range from 1 to 100,000 fragments per ml of blood.

ctDNA refers to DNA that comes from cancerous cells and is present in your bloodstream. As a tumour grows, your cells die and are replaced by new cells. Your dead cells decompose and their contents, including DNA, are released into your bloodstream. So, ctDNA are small fragments of DNA, the quantity of which varies between individuals and the location, type and stage of your cancerous tumour. Detection of single mutations in ctDNA requires a large volume of blood. The principal challenge of research predicated upon ctDNA is their relatively low abundance in your bloodstream. As a consequence, scientists cannot rely solely on ctDNA, and are forced to search for other genetic and epigenetic mutations in your blood.
Exosomes is another class of biomarker. Cancer related exosomes are nano-size membrane vesicles that play important roles in tumour microenvironment. A 2007 paper in Nature Cell Biology 
suggested that exosomes can load unique cargoes, including proteins and nucleic acids that reflect the condition of a tumour. Since the 2007 Nature paper, research into exosomes has increased and they are now being used as diagnostic and prognostic biomarkers for various cancers. 


An innovative liquid biopsy called CancerSEEK, which has been developed by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, in Baltimore, USA, is expected to make early cancer detection a part of routine medical care. Significantly, the test screens for eight common cancers, which account for more than 60% of all cancer deaths in the US. Currently, five of the cancers covered by the test have no screening test. CancerSEEK combines cutting-edge liquid biopsy technology with a machine learning engine, which is expected to improve the test’s accuracy with every person it screens. Findings of a retrospective study of multiple cancer types published in the February 2018 edition of the journal Science suggested that CancerSEEK has a sensitivity between 69% and 98% for ovarian, liver, stomach, pancreatic and oesophageal cancers, a specificity of 99%. Further, the study suggested that the test  has a false-positive rate of less than 1%. In 2019, CancerSEEK received Breakthrough Device designation from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the detection of genetic mutations and proteins associated with pancreatic and ovarian cancers, and also raised US$110m to launch a start-up company to develop the technology further.
FDA approval for a liquid biopsy developed by Roche
In June 2016, Roche, a global biopharma, became the first company to receive FDA approval of a liquid biopsy test to detect mutations associated with non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLC). Notwithstanding, the biopsy is not a universal test to detect the presence of NSCLC, but rather a test, which is being used in people with lung cancer to enhance personalised targeted therapies, and to monitor progression of the cancer. Some patients may benefit from the test's accompanying drug erlotinib (Tarceva), which treats NSCLC.
In September 2019, Genentech, a member of the Roche Group, announced positive results from the first prospective phase II/III clinical study to use a liquid biopsy and next generation sequencing to select treatment for people with NSCLC, without the need for a tissue biopsy. Next-generation sequencing facilitates the analysis of minute quantities of cfDNA circulating in the blood. In addition, Genentech is using machine learning algorithms on large data sets to characterize the molecular signatures of various cancer types.
Guardant and GRAIL
Previous HealthPad Commentaries have described research endeavours by Guardant Health  and GRAILwhich are “betting-on” liquid biopsies. Here briefly we update the developments of these two giant biopharma companies.

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In 2014 Guardant launched a next generation sequencing cfDNA assay called Guardant360 for treatment selection in a number of solid tumour cancers. In December 2018, the company launched an assay referred to as LUNAR to detect a range of early stage and recurrent cancers. LUNAR is based on data that Guardant collected from 80,000 advanced cancer patients using its 360 technology. In October 2019, the company launched ECLIPSE, a 10,000-patient clinical study to evaluate the performance of a second generation LUNAR blood test to detect colorectal cancer (CRC) in average-risk adults. The study is intended to improve CRC screening rates by offering a simpler liquid biopsy that overcomes challenges associated with current testing methods described above.
GRAIL has developed a prototype cfDNA sequencing assay to detect a range of cancers, many of which are not screened today and often present at late stages. Significantly, GRAIL has developed a prospective, observational, longitudinal clinical study called the Circulating Cell-free Genome Atlas (CCGA). The study has 15,000 participants across 142 sites in the US and Canada and has been designed to characterize the landscape of genomic cancer biomarkers of people with and without cancer. The company’s STRIVE study is fully enrolled with approximately 115,000 women and another study called SUMMIT also is fully enrolled with approximately 50,000 men and women aged 50 and older who do not have a cancer diagnosis at the time of enrolment.
Despite advancing technologies, FDA approvals, ongoing clinical studies and large and increasing investments in the development of liquid biopsies, (see a paper published in the June 2019 edition of Clinical and Translational Science entitled, “The Labyrinth of Product Development and Regulatory Approvals in Liquid Biopsy Diagnostics”) there remains a substantial gap between scientific aspirations and reality. Liquid biopsies still do not provide physicians with a reliable, point-of-care means to detect cancer early and become a reliable substitute for the more invasive and more expensive gold standard tissue biopsy.
Liquid biopsies represent a large and rapidly evolving area of bioengineering. There are hundreds of research papers published in peer reviewed medical journals, which describe findings of the latest research in this area. Oncologists involved in EDT research are familiar with genomics, the molecular properties of cancer tumours and commercially available innovative therapies, which are by-products of EDT research, but many oncologists are not. This difference of knowhow seems to be creating another gap  between certain personalised cancer therapies advocated by research oncologists and standard cancer management provided in many clinics. Closing these gaps is partly contingent upon continued and open EDT research and more effective education.
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Neil McHugh

Consultant Rheumatologist, Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases (RNHRD), Bath, UK; Professor of Pharmacoepidemiology, University of Bath, UK

Professor Neil McHugh graduated from Otago University Medical School, Dunedin, New Zealand, and completed physician training before specialising in the subspecialty of rheumatology. He has undertaken research fellowships at the Walter and Eliza Hall in Melbourne, Australia (1985), Yale University Medical School, USA (1990–1991), and the National Heart and Lung Institute, UK (2002–2004).

Professor McHugh has been a Consultant Rheumatologist at the RNHRD since 1991, and Professor of Pharmacoepidemiology at the University of Bath since 2013. His current interests include the serology of idiopathic inflammatory myositis, scleroderma, lupus and juvenile idiopathic arthritis. His laboratory group offers specialist autoimmune serology at the University of Bath, leads on a major European study of adult and juvenile idiopathic myositis, and has identified a number of novel diagnostic autoantibody biomarkers.

Professor McHugh also leads a programme of work related to psoriatic disease, including a National Institute for Health Research programme grant related to the early detection and optimisation of outcome measures in psoriatic arthritis. He has led on successive British Society for Rheumatology guidelines for biologics in psoriatic arthritis, and has been involved in National Institute for Health and Care Excellence and other international guidelines for psoriatic disease.

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