This new test, which costs only £35 per patient, will help doctors to diagnose early cases of oesophageal cancer, a form of throat cancer. Announcing their research at the British Science Festival in Swansea, the researchers said that if follow up studies support the data they have got so far, the test could be available to patients in 5 years.

Professor Gareth Jenkins of Swansea University said, ”The advantage for this kind of approach is that every hospital pathology department has a bank of flow cytometers because they use them for standard blood tests so there wouldn’t be an additional cost.”

Each year 7,000 people die of oesophageal cancer in the UK alone. “Oesophageal cancer has a very poor survival rate, only 15% of patients survive 5 years, so it’s in desperate need of better earlier diagnostic approaches”, says Professor Jenkins. The best treatment is removal of the cancer as early as possible.

Gareth Jenkins, a professor of genetics and Hasan Haboubi, a gastroenterologist and PhD student at the Medical School of Swansea have developed and optimised this blood test for over the past four years and tested it in more than 300 patients.

This new blood test is able to discriminate accurately between cancer patients and healthy patients with at least 80% of the cancer patients being detectable. The test is based on measuring the proportion of red blood cells affected by cancer, which has the advantage that it could be done in primary care rather than in a hospital setting and is much simpler than endoscopy, the most common current diagnostic method.

Professor Jenkins highlights that this method is looking for mutations, because these are the ‘scent’ of cancer’.

“Same as ‘no smoke without fire’, you don’t really get cancer without mutation, it is the consequence of the cancer that we get the high mutation level.”

On the other hand, just like a smoke detector may go off when there is no fire, this test may also detect mutations that are a result of other influences or conditions.

“It’s better to have some false positives than having lots of false negatives if you want to test and detect something early, that might cause someone to go for further tests,” argues Professor Jenkins.

Healthy red blood cells have sugary proteins on their surface that anchor cell recognition proteins similarly to Velcro. The numbers of healthy red blood cells are counted by measuring fluorescent light coming out of specific dyes used to stain these anchors. The diagnosis is possible because oesophageal cancer causes a mutation on the surface of red blood cells. The effect of which is that the anchors are lost in mutated cells. Consequently, they will not be stained with the fluorescent dyes and so the proportion of mutated cells can be effectively measured.

“The mutation we study removes this Velcro and without the Velcro being present you don’t get the cell surface markers present”, explains Professor Jenkins.

The researchers say this new test is a benefit not only to cancer patients but also pre-cancer patients, because it will help detect patients with pre-disposition to later developing cancer.

Dr Haboubi highlights that “these pre-cancer patients almost definitely would develop [oesophageal] cancer” so it can become very important in improving survival rates by early diagnosis.

Dr Petra Szilagyi is an Axa Media Fellow, placed at Nature News. She is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Pharmaceutical, Chemical & Environmental Sciences at the University of Greenwich.