Better Cancer Screening Is Needed: Hopes for 2021 and Beyond

Only 4 of the 20 most common cancers have a proven screening method.

Monumental strides in cancer treatment have been made in recent years, though there is still far more work to be done when it comes to cancer screening and diagnostic procedures, according to the American Cancer Society’s “Blueprint for cancer research: critical gaps and opportunities.”

“With only 4 of the 20 most common cancer types in the United States having a proven screening method to reduce mortality by identifying early-stage lesions, developing such tools for other high-incidence malignancies is urgently needed,” the report says.

The American Cancer Society worked with experts in the field to establish research opportunities that could lead to the development of better screening approaches in the future. They included:

  • Better understanding the molecular makeup of early-stage cancer and premalignant disease
  • Determining how the tumor microenvironment leads to the transition of premalignant to preinvasive to invasive disease
  • Creating better technologies for screening, early detection, and risk stratification
  • Improving the ways that biomarkers are analyzed and detected with a limited amount of fluid
  • Establishing how public health genomics can affect precision public health when it comes to cancer screening and earlier detection
  • Find ways to use artificial intelligence or machine learning and next-generation technologies (wearable devices, etc) to help in cancer screening and early detection.

Despite the existence of these major gaps, there have still been significant strides in diagnosing cancer and better understanding the disease biology.

For example, thanks to the advent of liquid biopsy, patients can undergo a blood test that provides vital information about circulating tumor cells, free tumor-derived DNA or RNA and cancer-derived exomes.

“A liquid biopsy offers many advantages over a traditional biopsy,” the report says. “It is minimally invasive, not generally limited in terms of sample accessibility and availability, and practical for repeat sampling, which could help clinicians during screening and surveillance as well as postdiagnosis to better understand the molecular changes occurring in a tumor over time.”

Additionally, every year researchers learn more about cancer biomarkers, and these discoveries continue to serve as the backbone for more personalized, efficacious cancer treatment.

Authors of the report hope that advances in genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, and lipidomics will further be used to develop better cancer screening as well as improve the cancer screening methods that are currently available — though those efforts have not yet been fruitful.

“With the advancement of metabolic profiling technologies, there have been notable efforts over the past decade to clinically exploit cancer-specific metabolism to aid in cancer detection,” the report says. “Thus far, translation and clinical utility have been somewhat disappointing.”

Ultimately, while 2020 did have scientific discoveries that will improve cancer treatment, there is still plenty of work to be done in 2021 and beyond.