A simple new technique could help improve diagnosis and treatment options for sufferers of lung cancer, researchers hope.
It involves counting the number of tumour cells in blood samples before and after chemotherapy, allowing doctors to establish how well patients are responding to treatment.
The technique is said to represent an improvement on a current diagnosis test that is invasive and can only be carried out once.
Work on the tumour cells could also lead to future breakthroughs in understanding how the disease develops, it is hoped.
Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, which funded the study, said: “Lung cancer is the leading cause of death from cancer in the UK and we desperately need new treatments for the disease.
“To be able to detect and count these rare tumour cells circulating through the blood, and the link this has to the progress of the disease, opens an incredibly exciting new area of research.
“We could now look at the genetic faults that are behind the disease and start to develop drugs that target these.”
But until now, diagnosis has been made through a one-of procedure called a bronchoscopy in which tissue is taken from the airways with a needle.
In a new paper published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, researchers detail how they studied the number of circulating tumour cells (CTCs) in 101 lung cancer patients before and after one cycle of chemotherapy.
The team discovered that patients who had five or more CTCs were much less likely to survive the disease.
They believe that by counting CTCs, doctors will be able to monitor how well patients are responding to chemotherapy soon after starting it and so move them on to different treatments if the number of cells rises.
Dr Fiona Blackhall, joint author and lung cancer clinician at The Christie cancer centre in Manchester, said: “Our research shows a new way to monitor how a patient’s lung cancer is responding to treatment and determine how aggressive it is. We now need to test our findings in more patients but, if our results are confirmed, there is now the potential to tailor treatments to individual patients and find new ways to treat the disease.”