A liquid biopsy is a minimally invasive cancer test that can improve patient outcomes — but right now, it’s only available to a small subset of Canadians.
Dr. David Huntsman
Chief Medical Officer, Canexia Health
The COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges for patients with other health conditions. For example, thousands of cancer surgeries were delayed beginning in March, and according to health officials, it may take up to two years to clear the current backlog in some provinces.
While cancer patients are being prioritized, they’re in a race against time. Cancer is a progressive disease. Cancer will not wait for a COVID-19 vaccine. And, cancer patients have an estimated two-fold increased risk of contracting COVID-19 and a three-fold risk of dying compared to the general population.
An alternative to surgical biopsy
Despite these challenges, a minimally invasive blood test can be performed for thousands of cancer patients each year, bypassing the need in some cases to wait for surgery. Known as liquid biopsy, this test requires only a blood sample from the patient. The sample is then analyzed by powerful technology to detect fragments of DNA shed by cancer tumours. Analysis of these fragments, known as genetic biomarkers, can help pinpoint optimal treatment for patients.
In May 2020, Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster approved an initiative led by Canexia Health to deploy and enhance its liquid biopsy test. Project ACTT (Access to Cancer Testing & Treatment in Response to COVID-19) aims to speed up liquid biopsy testing during the pandemic as an alternative to surgical tissue biopsies.
In the short-term, the project is offering testing to 2,000 patients with recurrent or metastatic lung, breast, or colorectal cancer. The long-term aim is to make this technology available to all medically eligible Canadians even after the COVID-19 pandemic recedes.
Early testing can mean early treatment
The impact would be significant. In 2019, almost 83,000 Canadians were newly diagnosed with the three most prevalent forms of cancer: lung, breast, and colorectal. Genetic biomarkers found in these three cancer types respond to multiple approved targeted therapies. These therapies are known to improve patient outcomes by two- to threefold. Yet, it is estimated less than 10% of cancer patients in Canada are tested for these biomarkers.
If an actionable biomarker is discovered by a liquid biopsy test, an oncologist may be able to immediately recommend an approved targeted therapy. If no actionable mutation is found, the patient’s oncologist can then determine if a tissue biopsy is required.
“COVID-19 has made it clear that liquid biopsy should be a first-line alternative to surgical procedures whenever medically indicated by an oncologist. What’s more, beyond the pandemic, this type of testing should be accessible everywhere Canadians live, in urban and remote locales. We believe everyone should have equal access to this life-saving cancer testing,” says Dr. David Huntsman, Chief Medical Officer of Canexia Health.