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A Simple Blood Test Could Eliminate Colonoscopy For Some Patients

A new blood test developed by Baylor Research Institute is 92% effective in finding colon cancer and 82% effective in finding pre-cancerous advanced colorectal polyps in people who took the test.

There are few things less popular than a colonoscopy. So it comes as welcome news to many that a new blood test might be able to detect colon cancer before it develops.

The blood test, developed by Baylor Research Institute brings us a step closer to finding a replacement for the colonoscopy as a screening tool. Dr. Ajay Goel led the test on several hundred patients with colorectal polyps and cancers to identify a single biomarker, known as Mir-21, that can help detect the cancer. 

“This test was 92% effective in finding colon cancer and 82% effective in finding advanced polyps which are precursors for developing into cancer down the line,” Goel said.

Every year almost 50,000 people die of colon cancer in the US alone – it’s the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths. But colorectal cancer is preventable, if you can find the signs early on.

The problem is, Goel says, we don’t have the proper tools to do that.

“The best tool we have right now is the colonoscopy,” he says, “and the colonoscopy is not only expensive, it is invasive and anybody who has gone through this procedure nobody likes it.”

Texas rates particularly low in terms of screening. In a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 58.8%of adults in the state were up-to-date with their colorectal screenings. That's compared to 64.5% nationally or 75.2% in Massachusetts. 

Credit Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Survey Data. Atlanta, Georgia: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010.
In this map the states are divided into groups based on the percentage of adults 50 years old or older who responded to a survey and said they were “up-to-date” with colorectal cancer screening.

Goel says having the option of a simple blood test to screen for the cancer would save time, money, and lives.

Just to clarify, if a blood test is positive, you'll still need a colonoscopy to remove the polyp or surgery to take out the tumor. So we can't bid the procedure farewell completely.

Now that the test results have been published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, the next step is to get the biomarker approved for use in screening by the FDA.

“Just imagine if we have a test like this, we can do it every six months, every year, it’s going to be probably a couple hundred dollars, a lot cheaper, and it’s non-invasive,” Goel says.

“And I think we are almost there.”

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.