Liquid biopsies are changing how we fight cancer

October 24, 20174 Minute Read

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The “C” word—cancer—is pretty scary for most of us. It can crop up in many forms, throwing our lives or those of our loved ones into serious chaos with little to no warning. Until recently, one of our main methods of detecting and treating cancer in its early stages, before it could become more dangerous and difficult to treat, has been the good old-fashioned—and often painful—biopsy.

But now, a new kid on the block may revolutionize how we spot cancer and stop it in its tracks: liquid biopsies. Here’s how liquid biopsies work and how health care IT pros can prepare for their arrival.

Liquid biopsies may revolutionize early cancer detection

So, what even is a liquid biopsy, you might ask? It sounds very futuristic, like one of those sleek, high-tech disease screening tools you might see in sci-fi films, like Gattaca or Equals, but the concept is straightforward: When cancer begins developing, cancer cells quietly shed fragments of their DNA into a person’s blood. By sequencing the DNA in a few drops of that person’s blood, doctors can identify cancer before it develops into a full-blown, life-threatening situation.

With the benefit of early detection, medical professionals have a much greater chance of beating it back than they would later on, only after it had developed into a tumor or, worse, metastasized throughout the body. But its benefits don’t end there: Liquid biopsies offer a doctor an alternative—a less invasive method when a tissue-based biopsy is not an option, for starters.

According to MIT Technology Review, a liquid biopsy can also help a doctor pick the right drug to prescribe based on the specific DNA mutation propelling the cancer forward. In other words, this health care innovation may improve not only our methods of catching cancer before it comes a threat, but it may also help health care professionals improve the way they treat cancer once it has manifested.

The tech behind the liquid biopsy: gene sequencing

To perform a liquid biopsy, a doctor needs a gene sequencing machine that can quickly decode millions of DNA fragments flowing through a patient’s bloodstream. Using that gadget, they can compare bits of rogue DNA—specifically, circulating-tumor DNA or ctDNA—with the human genome, identifying anomalies that point to the presence of cancer. From there, the doctor can identify the type of cancer that’s developed and create a treatment plan based on what they’ve learned from the DNA analysis.

Traditional DNA sequencers are pretty cost-prohibitive and bulky, which means you probably won’t be seeing one of them at your local doctor’s office anytime soon. But next-generation sequencing solutions, some of which are incredibly mobile and no larger than a phone, could lower the cost of cancer screening so much that it becomes routine—that is, if researchers are successfully able to develop tests that spot each of the most common cancers.

Investors are pouring resources into this tech, anticipating that they may hit pay dirt soon. According to a recent report from Research and Markets, the next-generation sequencing market could reach $12.45 billion by 2022, experiencing a compound annual growth rate of 20.5 percent along the way. If these cancer screening tests end up becoming more cost-effective and as commonly available as hoped, health care IT departments will need to figure out how to support them.

How health IT pros can prepare

Health care IT leaders will need to plan for the costs of purchasing and implementing the gene sequencing equipment used to perform a liquid biopsy. While the devices themselves are expensive now, hopefully costs will dip below the thousand dollar price point soon, like other screening devices in recent years.

Health care IT departments will also need to plan for training—both pre- and post-implementation—since it’ll be the first time using this equipment for many medical professionals. And it goes without saying: Health care IT pros must plan for the regular maintenance and care of this new technology.

Security is a huge issue for any health care organization these days, so IT departments should pay close attention to the cybersecurity of any gene sequencers they bring aboard. If the sequencers connect to the internet like IoT devices, then it’s important to check out any potential IoT cybersecurity concerns.

Insider threats and even outright theft are a potential issue with small, mobile equipment, so make sure you factor that in, too. Operational security is important—doctors should be trained to handle the equipment, so it preserves the privacy of their patients’ personal health information (after all, it doesn’t get more personal than your DNA).

Even though IT pros find technological breakthroughs exciting, they know that adopting new technology can put a strain on an organization. This is especially true if the firm is already navigating a lot of change and needs to adapt to a rapidly evolving technological landscape with a limited budget and new regulations.

But that’s the life of a health care IT professional: stealth superhero, always going the extra mile to improve health care delivery. Fortunately, it looks like these folks will soon have a new superpower to use in fighting the good fight: liquid biopsies.

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