‘Game-changing’ cancer detection test in development

The development of a blood test to detect bowel cancer can be "a game changer" to save countless lives, a cancer advocate says.

Since the terminal diagnosis and subsequent death of her husband Blair Vining, Southland woman Melissa Vining has been pleading for better care and initiatives to avoid other people going through what her husband and family experienced.

She teamed up with Julia Black — who also lost her husband, musician Malcolm Black of Netherworld Dancing Toys, to bowel cancer — to set up a new charity Hope Without Fear.

The charity aims to fundraise $1 million to support the research from Otago University Prof Parry Guilford of a non-invasive blood test that could detect bowel cancer in early stages, eliminating the need for a colonoscopy and consequently saving lives.

"This gives me physical goose bumps every time I think about it," Mrs Vining said.

"I think of all the beautiful people we have lost to bowel cancer and this could be part of the solution."

Prof Guilford along with Otago University researchers has been developing the blood test using Oxford Nanopore’s DNA sequencing technology.

The test involved the highly sensitive detection of fragments of DNA that have leaked from a cancer into the bloodstream.

Ms Vining said this would be a "game changer" as Southland and Otago had the highest rates of bowel cancer across the country.

"So there’s around 1000 [colonoscopies] a month completed in Otago and Southland, but there’s 100 people that are declined and that doesn’t include all the people that are not referred because the GP knows they don’t meet the criteria.

"So obviously if their bowel cancer is diagnosed early, it’s highly curable."

Prof Guilford said the blood test was built on seven years of research and about $4 million in funding from the Healthier Lives National Science Challenge and the Health Research Council.

The $1 million target would be used to pay for salaries and laboratory consumables for three years.

Researchers (from left) University of Otago PhD student Jordon Lima, Prof Mik Black and Prof...
Researchers (from left) University of Otago PhD student Jordon Lima, Prof Mik Black and Prof Parry Guilford show cancer patient advocate Melissa Vining a game-changing cancer detection technology. PHOTO: SUPPLIED/BACK 9
He and his team were among many laboratories across the globe who had been researching circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA), but they were developing their own methods and their own knowledge.

The immediate goal was to get an affordable and accessible test to ensure that people with symptoms of bowel cancer could be diagnosed before the cancer became untreatable.

"What we’re trying to achieve locally is and which will be different to what’s achieved elsewhere is to have a test, which is really accessible to people where they’re really tired of having to meet gatekeepers controlling access to such a profoundly important thing as a cancer diagnostic test," he said.

"So we want to get something which can be taken to communities very easily, it doesn’t require massive, huge, expensive machinery as it requires only very small-scale equipment."

Prof Guilford said this testing would also be valuable for New Zealand’s Pacific neighbours.

"In the islands, there’s currently no way you can do this type of testing or early cancer diagnosis and in the Pacific Islands this can’t be done.

"This will make that possible ... small, resource-poor or geographically isolated places will really benefit from what we’re doing."

Mrs Vining said it was "mind blowing" they only needed $1 million to get into the clinical trial stage.

Even without publicity, they already raised $345,879 and she hoped the whole country could contribute to ensure this blood test became a reality as it would also reduce costs to hospitals.

"No-one should die from bowel cancer and this simple blood test could be made in labs or GP clinic, freeing up resources of the healthcare system which are under pressure.

"This simple blood test can change the lives of countless New Zealanders."