The technology could guide doctors’ decisions on which drugs to give to patients.
Experts say the test could now be a ‘game changer’ in the treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL). It also has the potential to change how other cancers, including myeloma and breast cancer, are treated. While previous versions of the test had taken a week to process, results can now be ready in a day.
The research, which was funded by the blood cancer research charity Bloodwise, is published in the journal Leukemia.
CLL is a slowly developing blood cancer in which patients produce mutated versions of white blood cells that build up in the blood, bone marrow and lymph nodes and crowd out healthy blood cells.
CLL progresses at different rates in different people and never progresses at all in a third of patients. Until now there has been no accurate test that can be used to indicate whether and how fast individual patients’ cancer will develop.
The high-throughput ‘STELA’ test measures the length of sections of DNA in cancer cells called telomeres, which are found at the end of chromosomes. Telomeres act in the same way as protective plastic tips on the end of shoelaces, preventing chromosomes ends from ‘fraying’.
Telomeres shorten every time a cell divides to create a new cell and eventually the chromosome ends are left exposed – leading to extensive DNA damage that speeds up cancer progression.