Blood test 'could intercept cases of leukaemia in elderly patients'

Researchers hope the findings could allow doctors to catch the disease earlier and provide 'less harsh' treatment.

Blood test could intercept cases of leukaemia in elderly patients, Scottish research finds iStock
Blood test: The research could lead to new care for elderly cancer patients.

A blood test could help intercept late diagnoses of leukaemia in older people and allow treatment to be administered earlier, according to new research.

Scottish medics believe changes in blood cell production may be an indicator that a patient is at risk of developing the cancer in later years.

It is hoped identification of damage to the blood system could give doctors a chance to catch the disease before it passes into its most severe stage.

Researchers based at the University of Edinburgh, University of Glasgow and the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute say they may be able to provide “less harsh but effective treatments” to elderly patients.

Dr Kristina Kirschner, co-lead author of the paper, published in Nature Journal, said it was more likely this would lead to successful treatment being carried out.

Dr Kirschner, senior lecturer at University of Glasgow’s Institute of Cancer Sciences, added: “In knowing an individual patient’s risk of developing leukaemia, clinicians can schedule shorter gaps between appointments in those most likely to develop the disease and provide early treatment, which is more likely to be successful”.

The study measured changes in blood samples over a 12-year period, in a group of 85 people from the age of 70 onwards.

Scientists combined this data with an artificial intelligence algorithm to link different gene mutations with different growth speeds of blood stem cells carrying these mutations.

Exploring the mutations in more detail allowed researchers to better identify gene changes that were likely to go on to cause disease such as leukaemia.

Dr Linus Schumacher, co-lead author and chancellor’s fellow at the Centre for Regenerative Medicine of the University of Edinburgh, said: “To understand leukaemia risk, we need to consider the balance between the different cells involved in blood cell production and how this balance changes as we grow older.

“By linking genomic data with machine learning we have been able to predict the future behaviour of blood cells based on the mutations they develop.”

Dr Dawn Farrar, director of impact at Leukaemia UK, said the findings were “exciting,” adding they could lay the groundwork for future preventative work on the condition.

Dr Farrar said: “Identifying a future risk of development of leukaemia may ultimately offer the possibility of prevention and therefore save more lives.”

“These early stage findings provide an important stepping stone for further research to build on, with the potential to transform and personalise monitoring and follow-up for patients in the future and could ultimately play a role in preventing disease.”