Caring Currents

Futuristic Tests to Detect Early-Stage Cancer

Last updated: Feb 25, 2009

Image by olarte.ollie used under the creative commons attribution share alike license.

Are you worried about cancer? A better question probably would be, who isn't? I recently learned of a wonderful organization, the Canary Foundation , that's turning that fear into action.

The mission of this organization, founded by Don Listwin of Cisco Systems after he lost his mother to misdiagnosed ovarian cancer, is "A world of simple tests that identify and isolate cancer at its earliest most curable stage."

Some telling statistics from the Canary Foundation about early vs. late detection:

  • Colon cancer caught early has a 90% 5-year survival rate, vs. an only 10% survival rate if it's caught late and has spread to other organs.
  • Only 20% of ovarian cancer cases are diagnosed early when 90% will survive five years .
  • Over 40% of new lung cancer patients are diagnosed after the cancer has spread and only 3% of them will live for 5 years.
  • Breast and prostate cancer: Five-year survival with early stage disease is 98% and 100%, respectively, and survival rates remain high at 10 years.

When a member of my book group told us all that her father was recently diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer that's spread to his kidneys, a sad conversation ensued. Several people mentioned that as they watch their parents age, their biggest fear is that they'll die from cancer, rather than from something that brings a quicker end with less suffering. That led us all to talk about tests for cancer, and how we feel helpless trying to protect our family members from cancer.

Thanks to the Canary Foundation, we'll have a number of better tests within a few years.

Some of the research the Canary Foundation is sponsoring:

  1. Research at the University of Washington showing that a gene called Palladin is responsible for the development of familial pancreatic cancer and may play a central role in all pancreatic cancers. Future: a genetic test for Paladin and ultimately a blood test for the early detection of pancreatic cancer.
  2. Several research projects to identify blood-based biomarkers for ovarian cancer. Future: a blood test that reveals early-stage ovarian cancer.
  3. In high-tech microbubble ultrasound, a variation on traditional ultrasound, patients are injected with chemicals that attach to proteins on tumors. They vibrate when the ultrasound wand passes over, revealing the presence -- and characteristics -- of the tumor. Future: Tumors as small as 2 centimeters could be identified by ultrasound.
  4. Raman Imaging, a new nanotechnology developed at Stanford (so far tested only on mice) that uses a laser and injections of tiny particles to spot microscopic clumps of cancer cells. Future: A test for the earliest stage of colorectal cancer using Raman imaging.
  5. The discovery by Arun Chinnaiyan and team that levels of an obscure amino acid called sarcosine rise as prostate cancer cells become aggressive and begin to invade surrounding tissue. Future: A test to measure sarcosine levels in the urine, which could distinguish slow-growing tumors from aggressive ones.

There's more about all this in a recent Wired magazine article. Writer Thomas Goetz makes a case that as a country, we're spending way too much of our resources on treating and curing cancer, and way too little -- less than 15 percent of total research funds --  on developing early detection methods that might find cancer while it's in its early stages and still curable.

Better scans and tests are the best way to help ourselves and our families, the more than a third of all Americans, some 120 million people, who will be diagnosed with cancer in our lifetimes.