Futuristic Israeli blood test could replace cancer screening in decade: inventor

Hebrew University’s advanced DNA test already conducted on 1,000 people; method now published in prestigious peer-reviewed journal Nature Biotechnology

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A woman undergoing a medical mammography scan. (jovannig via iStock by Getty Images)
A woman undergoing a medical mammography scan. (jovannig via iStock by Getty Images)

Hebrew University scientists have developed a blood test that they say could replace nearly all cancer screenings within a decade.

The technology extracts from blood a trove of information it has picked up from all the organs and tissue it passed during its travels around the body.

The test could drastically reduce cancer cases by catching them early, as regular blood tests are practical in a way that regular screenings are not, said Dr. Ronen Sadeh, of Hebrew University’s Grass Center for Bioengineering, who led the study together with Prof. Nir Friedman.

“Liquid biopsies” that can detect cancer from blood already exist, but they are not yet in widespread use, and crucially only indicate whether there is cancer, without providing a detailed picture of where it is found.

Doctor showing medical records to cancer patient in hospital ward. (Ridofranz; iStock by Getty Images)

“Our new technology can tell you not only whether you have a tumor, but also its exact location in the body,” Sadeh told The Times of Israel on Monday. “It can also differentiate between similar types of tumors to help doctors make better decisions on how to treat patients.”

He predicted: “Within ten years, we hope it could be a test people do regularly and routinely in order to monitor for cancer, and monitor the health of their organs for other diseases too.”

Sadeh added: “Screening would be easier, more generic and less expensive, so there would be more screening and this would save lives.”

Prof. Noam Shomron, a cancer expert from Tel Aviv University who is unconnected with the research, told The Times of Israel that while many scientists around the world are working on next-generation blood tests for cancer, this one is “worth the buzz.”

He said: “There are many scientific labs around the world running similar experiments, though this team has its own unique perspective.” Shomron added that the ability to pinpoint where cancer is located is a new contribution to the field, and said that Sadeh and his colleagues have come up with “a wonderful idea and a wonderful approach.”

The new method has been tested on 1,000 people in Israel and the US, and its findings coincide with those of doctors deploying traditional diagnoses. Sadeh is CEO of a new startup, Senseera, which has been established to initiate a wide clinical trial and promote the technology.

The team behind the new cancer blood test research (from left to right): Gavriel Fialkoff, Dr. Ronen Sadeh, Dr. Israa Sharkia, and Prof. Nir Friedman. (Courtesy of Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Research outlining the process was published last month in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature Biotechnology. Sadeh said the article gives hope that the test could replace biopsies, mammograms, colonoscopies, and various other procedures currently conducted to detect cancer.

The main innovation, according to Sadeh, is the analysis of both DNA sequence and other information that gives a layer of insight on genetic activity beyond the sequence, known as epigenetic information.

“We don’t just look at the DNA sequence, which is the main focus of normal liquid biopsies, but also at details like the way DNA is packed and regulated inside the cell, which can tell us a lot,” he said.

Sadeh said that it is impossible to constantly screen everyone for all cancers, but because blood is always circulating in the body, it “picks up information from every organ,” which just needs to be “captured and interpreted.”

In order to do this, his test deploys molecular biology to create an investigative method that uses specific antibodies to “capture epigenetic information,” which is then fed into a machine developed to analyze the information.

“Blood is constantly circulating the body and and is currently picking up information from all tissue,” he said. “We already use this information for various tests like liver enzyme tests but the information is very general; it just points to a general problem if one exists.

“By extracting very detailed data, we can tell where cancer is and can also identify additional diseases — liver diseases, immune diseases, and others,” Sadeh said. “We are optimistic that the technology will be used to advance health and save lives.”

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