ctDNA Promising for Cancer Detection, but Faces Challenges

Cancer screening remains challenging. There are screens available for a handful of solid tumors, but uptake is low caused in part by health care access barriers as well as the potential for unnecessary follow-up procedures, according to Phillip Febbo, MD.

These issues could threaten efforts like that of President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative, which aims to reduce cancer mortality by 50%. Advances in circulating tumor (ct) DNA analysis could help address these problems, but a lack of diversity among study participants needs to be addressed to ensure it has broad utility, continued Dr. Febbo, during his presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research.

The problem is particularly acute among African American, Hispanic, and other underserved populations who often face health care barriers that can exacerbate the issue, said Dr. Febbo, who is chief medical officer for Illumina. The lack of access is compounded by the fact that there are only currently screens for lung, breast, colorectal, cervical, and prostate cancer, leaving a vast unmet need.

“We still do not have screening tests for 70% of the deaths that are due to cancer,” he said.

ctDNA released from dying cancer cells has the potential to reveal a wide range of cancer types and reduce barriers to access, because it is based on a blood test. It can be analyzed for various factors, including mutations, chromosomal rearrangements, methylation patterns, and other characteristics that hint at the presence of cancer. However, it can’t be successful without sufficient inclusion in research studies, Dr. Febbo explained.

“We have to ensure we have the right representation [of] populations when we develop these tests, when we go through the clinical trials, and as we bring these into communities,” he said.

During his presentation, Dr. Febbo shared a slide showing that about 78% of participants in published gene-association studies were White.

ctDNA showed promise in at least on recent study. Dr. Febbo discussed the ECLIPSE trial, which used the Guardant Health SHIELD assay for colorectal cancer (CRC). About 13% of its approximately 20,000 participants were Black or African American, 15% were Hispanic, and 7% were Asian Americans. It also included both urban and rural individuals. In results announced in December 2022, the researchers found a sensitivity of 83%, which was lower than the 92.3% found in standard CRC screening, but above the 74% threshold set by the Food and Drug Administration. The specificity was 90%.

One approach that could dramatically change the landscape of cancer screening is a multicancer early detection (MCED) test, according to Dr. Febbo. The CancerSeek MCED test, developed by Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center researchers, uses a series of genetic and protein biomarkers to detect all cancers, with the exception of leukemia, skin cancer, and central nervous system tumors. Among 10,006 women aged between 65 and 75 years with no history of cancer, it had a sensitivity of 27.1% and a specificity of 98.9%, with a positive predictive value of 19.4%. The study’s population was 95% non-Hispanic White.

He also discussed the Pathfinder study, sponsored by the Illumina subsidiary Grail, which included 6,662 individuals age 50 and over from seven sites in the United States, and grouped them into normal and increased risk; 92% were non-Hispanic White. It used the Galleri MCED test, which performed with a sensitivity of 29%, specificity of 99.1%, and a positive predictive value of 38.0%. False positives produced to limited burden, with 93% undergoing imaging, 28% nonsurgical invasive procedures, and 2% undergoing fruitless invasive surgical procedures.

Dr. Febbo touted the potential for such tests to greatly reduce cancer mortality, but only if there is adequate uptake of screening procedures, particularly in underserved groups. He put up a slide of a model showing that MCED has the potential to reduce cancer mortality by 20%, but only if the screen is widely accepted among all groups. “I’ve had my team model this. If we accept the current use of screening tests, and we don’t address disparities, and we don’t ensure everybody feels included and participates actively – not only in the research, but also in the testing and adoption, you would cut that potential benefit in half. That would be hundreds of thousands of lives lost because we didn’t address disparities.”

Successful recruiting of African Americans for research

Following Dr. Febbo’s talk, Karriem Watson, MS, spoke about some potential solutions to the issue, including his own experiences and success stories in recruiting African Americans to play active roles in research. He is chief engagement officer for the National Institute of Health’s All of Us Research Program, which aims to gather health data on at least 1 million residents of the United States. Mr. Watson has spent time reaching out to people living in communities in the Chicago area to encourage participation in breast cancer screening. An event at his church inspired his own sister to get a mammogram, and she was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer.

“I’m a living witness that early engagement can lead to early detection,” said Mr. Watson during his talk.

He reported that the All of Us research program has succeeded in creating diversity within its data collection, as 46.7% of participants identify as racial and ethnic minorities.

Mr. Watson took issue with the common perception that underrepresented communities may be hard to reach.

“I want to challenge us to think outside the box and really ask ourselves: Are populations hard to reach, or are there opportunities for us to do better and more intentional engagement?” He went on to describe a program to recruit African American men as citizen scientists. He and his colleagues developed a network that included barbers, faith leaders, and fraternity and civic organization members to help recruit participants for a prostate cancer screening project. They exceeded their initial recruitment goal.

They went on to develop a network of barbers in the south and west sides of Chicago to recruit individuals to participate in studies of protein methylation and lung cancer screening, as well as a project that investigated associations between neighborhood of residence and lung cancer. The results of those efforts have also informed other projects, including a smoking cessation study. “We’ve not only included African American men in our research, but we’ve included them as part of our research team,” said Mr. Watson.

Dr. Febbo is also a stockholder of Illumina. Mr. Watson has no relevant financial disclosures.

From American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting 2023: Improving cancer outcomes through equitable access to cfDNA tests. Presented Monday, April 17, 2023.

This story originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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