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New blood testing methods could help doctors catch diseases earlier

A NHS trial hopes to be able to detect 50 types of cancer before symptoms appear.

Cancer is a horrible - and horribly common - disease. One in two Brits will be diagnosed with it in their lifetime, and it was responsible for over a quarter of all UK deaths in 2019. The costs associated with cancer are varied and huge. And each of these costs have a variety of components, affecting the wellbeing of individuals, societies, governments and economies.

Take paid work as an example. When a person falls ill, the quality and quantity of the work they do usually decreases. They may have to take extensive time off, or even drop out of the workforce all together. This often translates to a large hit to the ill individual’s finances and career. They are more likely to be passed over for promotion or other work opportunities. They may even be laid off.

While Brits who need to take extended time off are entitled to statutory sick pay, this is just £96.35 a week. That’s less than a third of the minimum wage for a 40-hour working week (£356.40) and about a sixth of the average weekly wage in the UK (£576). Statutory sick pay is also only valid for 28 weeks. After that you have to apply for disability benefits. In the UK, the standard weekly payment for someone who is too ill to work is £57.30 a week. As a comparison, the average rent payment in England is £201 a week, and an average weekly grocery shop for a family is £63.70.

At the same time as an individual is experiencing these economic costs, businesses, employers and customers are facing the consequences of no longer having access to the skills and labour of the person who has fallen ill. This hits bottom lines and in some cases deprives the world of particularly unique or valuable ideas and talents. Meanwhile, governments are getting less income tax from the ill worker and at the same time increasing revenue spending in order to fund the associated healthcare and welfare costs.

Plus, all these effects may be multiplied, because when someone falls seriously ill it’s not uncommon for their loved ones to also cut back on paid work, in order to care for the patient, or take on more of the ill person's former responsibilities such as childcare, or even just because the stress of the situation is taking a toll on their health and wellbeing too.

These impacts on paid work are just a sample of the myriad costs of cancer. Societies therefore have strong incentives to try and reduce the number of cancer cases. There are a few ways this can be done. One is better treatment. Another is a focus on prevention by decreasing people’s exposure to known carcinogens. Regulations on cigarettes, including whacking large taxes on them to make them unappealingly expensive, is an example of this. So are attempts to clean up air pollution in cities.

Shifting people and societies away from choices that increase their cancer risk can be tricky though, not least because such shifts can come with their own costs. For example, banning alcohol would decrease cancer cases, but be considered by many to be a restriction on their wellbeing and/or personal autonomy. Shutting down factories means less cancer-causing particles in the air, but also fewer jobs and fewer goods on the shelves.

However, such trade-offs aren’t so much of a problem with the third way of reducing the cancer burden: earlier detection of the disease. Cancer takes hold by replicating mutated cells and spreading throughout the body. The sooner it can be discovered, therefore, the less of it there is to remove and the more likely it is that the patient can recover quickly and completely. So the news that it might be possible to detect cancer at its very earliest stages - before even any symptoms appear - is being seen by many to be a complete gamechanger.

The method of detection is via blood tests, and the company who thinks they can do it is called GRAIL. The idea, which was discovered by Dr Meredith Halks-Miller back in 2013, is currently being trialed by the NHS. If it works, it could become part of regular health screenings - perhaps for everyone, perhaps just for people who are particularly high-risk (because they’re smokers, say, or have a family history of cancer).

There are some concerns about the method. Blood testing for disease has been overhyped before (remember the Theranos drama?). Even if it works, the fact that GRAIL’s parent company currently has something of a monopoly over the process is leading to speculation that it could keep the technology away from other researchers in order to maximise its own profitability. Still, a new technology that has the potential to significantly improve the wellbeing of half the population is exciting news to many.

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