YOUR HEALTH: Liquid biopsies ease the pain

PHILADELPHIA – As if it isn't hard enough to have cancer, surgical diagnostic biopsies add to the anguish.

They are invasive.  And they hurt.

Kim Belcastro was an active wife and mother of two until doctors discovered cancer lurking first in her lungs and then in her brain and spine.

"By the time it was diagnosed, it was in four different parts of my body," Belcastro explained.

Kim had three surgical biopsies which were debilitating.

But at Penn Medicine, her doctors used a liquid biopsy from a simple blood test that looks for the genetic mutations causing tumors to spread.   It searches for D-N-A circulating in the blood that identify as cancer.   With that knowledge, doctors are better able to modify chemotherapy.

"Just fathom that in her case we were able to find the one or two very, very small pieces, microscopic pieces of DNA that contain this mutation among billions and billions of DNA that were in her blood," said Dr. Erica Carpenter, the director of Penn Medical's Liquid Biopsy Center.

And early detection changes lives.

"With this technology, we were able to find this other relevant mutation, for which now she's on another oral therapy and she's experiencing extremely good clinical benefit," explained Dr. Charu Aggarwal, an assistant professor of Hematology at the Perelman School of Medicine.

Thanks to this early warning system, Kim still enjoys life with her family.

In many cases, these biopsies identify the same mutations in the blood that are present in the tumor.

The FDA approved the first liquid biopsy over a decade ago as a test for cancer.  And a year ago a circulating tumor DNA test was approved that spots the mutations.

NEW TECHNOLOGY: The liquid biopsy includes the process of collecting five milliliters of blood. The procedure is quicker than a standard biopsy, and the blood sample gets reduced to 2 milliliters of blood plasma. The blood plasma is then analyzed to detect tumors in the DNA. Similar to tissue biopsies, liquid biopsies can detect and diagnose the progression of cancer. In addition, there is less chance of getting an infection or bleeding, since it is non-invasive. The revolutionary treatment seeks to improve the survival rates of cancer and to preserve tissue for other types of testing, such as cancer immunotherapy.   (Source: http://www.roche.com/research_and_development/what_we_are_working_on/oncology/liquid-biopsy.htm )

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.