Researchers at Cardiff University in the UK have developed a new test, dubbed STELA, to quickly predict how a patient with a common type of leukaemia would respond to standard therapy.
The test could help doctors make better decisions on treatment plans for chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) patients. It is intended to identify whether the cancer will develop and how fast this could happen.
CLL tends to affect white blood cells slowly over many years. It mostly affects people over the age of 60, is rare in people under 40 and almost never affects children.
Unlike its previous versions that took one week to process, the test is said to now deliver results within a day.
STELA is designed to measure the length of DNA sections in cancer cells called telomeres present at the end of chromosomes.
Each time a cell divides to create a new one, telomeres shorten and the chromosome ends are exposed over time. This exposure is said to cause extensive DNA damage that drives cancer progression.
The Cardiff research, which was funded by Bloodwise, revealed that patients carrying very short telomeres at the time of their diagnosis are much more likely to progress faster.
Bloodwise research director Alasdair Rankin said: “People with CLL can experience great anxiety and uncertainty about how their cancer will progress. This test could give people the peace of mind that they will receive the most effective treatment possible if it does. It may even allow some people to be told that their cancer is unlikely to progress.”
To assess the test’s latest version, the team analysed samples from 260 patients. The study aimed to determine STELA’s ability to predict patient response to intensive chemotherapy plus immunotherapy.
The test demonstrated that people with short telomeres relapsed within an average of 3.7 years, compared to 5.5 years in case of those with long telomeres.
Cardiff University School of Medicine professor Duncan Baird said: “Not all patients benefit equally from chemotherapy and this test is the only one available that can accurately predict how patients are likely to respond.”
Calling the new test a ‘game changer’, the researchers said that the technology has the potential for application in other types of cancers, including myeloma and breast cancer.
Additional reporting by Charlotte Edwards.