The future of cancer diagnosis and treatment: Liquid biopsies can reveal cancer and more

Some of cancer’s secrets are hiding in patients’ blood. Uncovering them involves only a simple blood draw. MD Anderson is taking innovative steps to maximize the potential of so-called liquid biopsies for the benefit of our patients. “Although liquid biopsies for broad clinical use are still in their infancy, they have the potential to revolutionize cancer care,” says Stan Hamilton, M.D., division head, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. “MD Anderson is pushing this field forward in many ways. It’s an incredibly exciting time.” Blood vs. tissue biopsies Biopsies are critical to the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. In the past, the only option was collecting tissue from the tumor for examination. Today, physicians can learn important information about certain cancers from a tube of blood. And for patients, a quick needle stick is preferable to a more invasive procedure that can get complicated depending on the tumor’s size and location. So why do tissue biopsies anymore? “Blood can only tell us so much right now, so tissue biopsies remain the best and sometimes only option to provide the answers we need,” Hamilton says. “But I’m confident that we’ll be able to use liquid biopsies more as discoveries continue.” Unlocking answers Because cancer cells can release genetic material into the bloodstream, blood can help us learn earlier if there’s cancer in the body, before it causes symptoms or grows enough to be seen through imaging. This is currently most helpful to monitor if cancer has returned after treatment. Blood also can reveal genetic information about the cancer that’s present. Liquid biopsies scan for particular genetic alterations, aiding in prognosis and suggesting...