What if testing for cancer could become part of your routine annual check up, and one could detect cancer even before a tumour is formed?
An early detection cancer test developed with Tzar Labs, Singapore - a specialised molecular diagnostic company - in collaboration with Mumbai-based Epigeneres Biotech, could make this a reality.
The simple blood test is a prognostic, non-invasive, and safe test for cancer detection, which can be taken as frequently as required.
FIT speaks to Anish Tripathi, Managing Director at Epigeneres, to know more about the test.
How does the test work?
Anish Tripathi: The test leverages stem cells that were discovered by researchers in organ tissues. They are very small and rare, but play an extremely important role in fulfilling the requirements of an organ for the specialised cells.
"It was also found that there is a correlation between these cells and if and when an organ develops a tumour."
These stem cells are essentially precursor cells to what eventually becomes tumour cells, therefore we are able to detect cancer early.
These stem cells, however, could not be accessed from the organs directly, unless we do a tissue biopsy. Our innovation was that were able to get access to these stem cells from peripheral blood. This was a significant breakthrough.
"To summarise, this is a simple blood test that a person can do to, and if at all you are destined to develop cancer, we’ll be able to detect mutations in these stem cells earlier on. It takes around 4 to 6 days to get the report."
Can the test really detect cancer at stage zero? What is stage zero?
Anish Tripathi: There is a 12 to 18 month window from the time the mutations start occurring in these stem cells and a fully blown tumour occurs. That’s the period when we can use this test to detect cancer early.
"Stage zero is something that happens before stage 1. It's the stage where the cancer cells have started proliferating, but a full-blown tumour has not formed yet. That’s how early we are able to detect it."
It (stage zero) has been known to scientists and doctors for a while, but practically it didn't mean anything because there was no test available to detect cancer at this stage. Currently, there is also no treatment protocol for cancer detected very early.
Why is early detection of cancer such a big deal?
Anish Tripathi: The number of cancer patients in India is significant. More than a million cancer patients are detected every year. A lot of doctors believe that the actual number of cancer patients suffering could be three to four times the number that is reported.
However, the tragedy of cancer is that it is detected very late (third or fourth stage) when it is a strong disease, difficult to cure, the cost of treatment is high, the time of treatment is longer, and the possibility of fatality is also greater.
"But if, let's say, we are able to catch 80 percent of future cancer patients at early stages (zero to one), then it makes all the difference between being able to cure it – time of treatment, chances of success, and cost of treatment all improve dramatically."
Our dream is to change this disease from a late stage disease to an early stage disease.
Who is it meant for?
Anish Tripathi: The test is relevant for everyone – for asymptomatic people like you and me for screening purposes, for cancer patients, and even survivors.
But, there are certain categories of people who have a higher predisposition to developing cancer, who are classically defined as a high-risk population, who should consider getting the test done for sure.
People with a family history of cancer
Those who excessively consume alcohol
"But really its for everyone because there’s no real logic as to who can develop cancer. The triggers of cancer are also expanding, even in young people. It can be anyone."
How much does it cost?
Anish Tripathi: We want to keep the price as low as possible in India. The list price is Rs 14,000, but can cost as low as Rs 9,000.
There is still a large constituency of people who can afford to pay. However, for those people who cannot afford it, we are trying to figure out ways in which we can make it available.
"We hope that as we are able to increase the capacity with automation, etc, and we are able to bring the price down further, and make it more affordable."
What can this test change things for the future of cancer treatment, especially in India?
Unfortunately, the detection of these cells in stage zero is not considered cancer even by an oncologist today. You cannot start treatment without radiological evidence for a particular tumour.
We hope that as our test becomes available across India, there will be a demand from oncologists to treat early-stage cancer, and then it will be up to the pharmaceutical companies to come up with treatment options for early-stage cancer.