A new blood test helps match cancer patients to drugs

Press release posted 20 May 2019

An ovarian cancer patient treated at The Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester has seen her tumour shrink by more than half thanks to a simple blood test. 

Barbara Stojkovic, aged 69, a retired secretary from Quinton in Birmingham, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer five years ago has seen nearly a 60% shrinkage in the size of her tumour after taking part in a clinical trial at The Christie, the largest single-site cancer research centre in the UK.

The pioneering technique, developed by scientists at The University of Manchester, helps match patients to cancer medicines based on the genetic make-up of their cancer.

When Barbara found that her tumour wasn’t responding to conventional chemotherapy and was continuing to grow she was referred to The Christie in early 2017. Her first trial treatment proved to be ineffective so doctors at The Christie decided she would be an ideal candidate for molecular testing of her cancer, using a simple blood test, available as part of the TARGET trial.

Barbara Stojkovic

The aim of the TARGET trial is to offer personalised cancer medicine based on an analysis of each patient’s faulty gene(s) (or mutation(s)) driving the growth of their tumour.

At present, tumour biopsies are most commonly used for this purpose but the research team in Manchester are trialling the analyses of blood samples to match patients to treatment. Tumours shed their DNA into the bloodstream and use of this ‘circulating tumour DNA’ collected in a blood sample holds great promise and is much less invasive for the patient.   

Following recruitment to the TARGET trial, Barbara was matched to a drug which induces damage in cancer cells. While on this trial, CT scans revealed that Barbara’s tumour had shrunk by a remarkable 57%. This treatment was effective for eight months but the cancer started to grow again.

Based on the findings in the blood, Barbara was matched to another clinical trial which involves travelling to The Christie every week for half an hour to receive chemotherapy and oral treatment. This is repeated on a weekly basis.

Barbara is currently feeling fit and well. She said: “I feel very grateful to be given the opportunity to have been on three different clinical trials. When I originally didn’t respond to conventional chemotherapy, the clinical trials team at The Christie gave me hope. I have been touched by the determination the doctors have had to find a new treatment that works for me.

“Even though I live in Birmingham, I am retired, so the drive up to Manchester for weekly treatment doesn’t bother me. I’m happy to do it knowing I’m being treated in the right place for my cancer. The team there are my angels. The level of support and care they provide to patients is above any expectations and I am so grateful.

“I am hopeful this third trial will deliver good results. I feel well, and my granddaughters keep telling me I look great, so I remain very optimistic.”

Barbara’s experience illustrates how doctors can now use a patient’s genetic results to deliver personalised medicines that are more likely to be effective, and with fewer side effects.

Christie Research has more than 650 open trials and is the biggest cancer clinical trials centres in Europe.  Monday 20 May is International Clinical Trials Day.

Dr Matthew Krebs who is the clinical lead for the TARGET trial at The Christie said “It’s fantastic that Barbara and others like her can benefit from advances in cancer research conducted here in Manchester. This scientific study has enabled us to identify faulty genes from a blood test and match patients to clinical trials. We are really encouraged by these results. The test doesn’t work for everyone and we can’t always match patients up with treatments but it’s an insight into the future of cancer care and guiding personalised treatments based on blood tests. This also provides a way to continually monitor and adapt to changes in the cancer with new targeted therapies.”

The scientists who developed the technique are from The Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute at The University of Manchester.

Prof Caroline Dive CBE, who leads the laboratory at the CRUK Manchester Institute at The University of Manchester, where the blood testing takes place, said: “We have been working hard in the lab developing this blood test for several years and I am really delighted that patients like Barbara can now derive benefit. We will continue to strive to make the test more sensitive and add further elements to it that we hope will increase its potential to help more patients. This is a very pleasing example of Manchester’s philosophy of team working between scientists and doctors to improve patient outcomes.”