The Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI) is the first institute in Australia to have an accredited test using tumour DNA to detect tumour growth.
This innovative new blood test makes it possible to diagnose and monitor a patient’s cancer treatment progress without invasive tests and worrying lengthy waiting times to get results.
Natasha Stork, 34, a young mother, came to the ONJ Centre complaining of pain in her abdomen and a CT scan revealed a number of cancerous tumours throughout her body. Natasha’s doctors needed to find out what type of cancer they were dealing with. In many cases, a tissue sample is collected, usually during surgery or a similar invasive procedure, various laboratory tests are done over two to three weeks before any answers are clear. In Natasha’s case, time was running out and she was not able to wait several weeks.
Tom Witkowski, a research scientist at the ONJCRI laboratory was able to take a blood sample from Natasha and use the tumour DNA blood test to identify the type of tumours growing in her body.
“This blood test is able to detect tiny fragments of tumour DNA that are floating around in the bloodstream”, says Tom. “We can see the presence of the mutant DNA common in melanoma and conclude that the patient, in this case Natasha, is most likely to have melanoma.”
Within six hours of taking her blood sample, doctors knew that Natasha had Stage 4 metastatic melanoma – a very serious and life-threatening diagnosis.
Natasha was put onto a specific treatment for such tumour DNA mutations which stopped the tumour cells multiplying and any existing tumour cells naturally died off in a short time period. Another blood test six weeks later detected no tumour DNA in her blood which meant the tumour cells had disappeared. A CT scan confirmed this.
While on this treatment, Natasha gave regular blood samples for testing to monitor her progress.
“Tumour cells are very clever and often figure out a way to evade the treatment and start growing again,” says Tom. “Sure enough, one particular blood sample showed a small amount of the tumour DNA which indicated the tumours were active again.”
Immediately, Natasha’s doctor initiated a change of treatment. This special blood test meant tumour activity was identified before any other symptoms were obvious, saving precious time and possibly saving Natasha’s life. Treatment was changed to revolutionary immunotherapy which boosts the patient’s own immune system to fight the tumour. Natasha responded very well to this treatment and nearly all of the cancer disappeared. Only one small tumour remained on Natasha’s spleen which was removed surgically.
Now, Natasha periodically comes in to give a blood sample which is tested to monitor the presence of tumour DNA in her blood. In the instance of this happening, the speed of the test results means that Natasha’s doctor will be able to react immediately rather than waiting several weeks for a tissue sample or Natasha having to undergo a CT scan.
“The thing that makes the ONJ Centre really special is the close contact the research scientists have with the doctors,” says Tom. “This can mean uniquely tailored treatment – like the tumour DNA blood test - that can be extremely timely, especially for patients like Natasha.”
Natasha features in the ONJ Centre Christmas appeal, raising funds to help continue our vital research into melanoma. If we can better understand the disease, we can find ways to defeat it and stop it from returning.