Early detection and diagnosis research in cancer

One of the key ways to improve cancer outcomes is to detect and diagnose at an earlier stage when cancers are far more treatable. However, a limitation to the earlier diagnosis of some cancers is the lack of technologies that can detect very early indicators of disease. This means research into novel tests and innovations, and the rapid implementation of effective interventions into the healthcare system, are crucial. 

Undertaking Follow Up

The fight against cancer is increasingly turning towards earlier detection and diagnosis to provide the best chances of catching the disease early, which is a key predictor of successful treatment. The importance of earlier detection and diagnosis in improving cancer survival rates has been recognised through both £210 million of public investment in early diagnosis and precision medicine as part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and the Prime Minister’s announcement of a new Cancer Strategy focused on early detection.

Early detection research seeks to enable the detection of cancer or pre-cancerous states at the earliest possible time at which an effective intervention might be made; early diagnosis research seeks to understand the role of patients, healthcare professionals and healthcare providers, and to develop interventions in a population or clinical context.  Early detection and diagnosis technologies include a new wave of tests that use genetic, biomarker or phenotypic information to detect the presence of a cancer in circumstances where it was not previously possible, and determine the type of cancer so that it can be treated with new targeted cancer treatments.

However, these technologies face unique challenges in proving that they are reliable, accurate, improve outcomes and save time and money, as well as getting them into the hands of clinicians where they can be used for the benefits of patients.

On 7 February 2018 the Academy and Cancer Research UK convened a FORUM workshop to explore the landscape for translating early detection and diagnosis technologies for cancer. This explored some of the challenges to translation, both in terms of translation of the science into a technology, and then translation and adoption of technologies into the healthcare system, and proposed future priorities for accelerating this translation.

Several key challenges, and potential solutions, were identified by participants:

  • Increasing the resources available to support research in this field. For example, increasing the availability and accessibility of longitudinal samples linked to clinical data (to be made available for discovery and validation) and the development of a roadmap for the translation of early detection and diagnosis tests to support researchers through the various stages of development.
  • Supporting researchers to ensure that clinical need and application, defined outcomes and health economics (i.e. cost saving benefits) are considered at the earliest appropriate opportunity during development.
  • Supporting clinical trials for diagnostics by building the infrastructure for the clinical evaluation of diagnostic tests – proposed as Clinical Trials Units for diagnostics – and provide a stable platform of expertise to accelerate progression to the clinic.
  • Ensuring that the NHS is prepared to fully capitalise on the disruptive potential of novel cancer early detection and diagnosis technologies, including addressing any future NHS workforce needs and tackling heterogeneity in access to and implementation of new technologies.

The report of this workshop has now been published and can be found on the right hand side of this page. The Academy and Cancer Research UK are currently exploring opportunities for a roadmap for early detection and diagnosis technologies in cancer.

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