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Multi-Cancer early detection will revolutionize cancer screening

Updated: Apr 13

BIO: Mark Mayhew, PhD (Senior Medical Science Liaison at GRAIL).


Understandably, COVID-19 has taken up the lion’s share of our attention over the past year. It’s the biggest public health crisis the United States has faced in decades, but, thankfully, Americans are getting vaccinated at an unprecedented rate. However, we are still months away from returning to normalcy. As more infectious, deadlier variants of the vaccine spread, we are still struggling to contain the disease. It’s important that we broaden our assessment of the pandemic’s impact on the health of Americans. One of the major concerns is the disruption to cancer screenings and treatments.

Detecting cancer early has an unequivocally positive effect on cancer outcomes. But, as National Cancer Institute Director Ned Sharpless and several other prominent voices have predicted, the pandemic will hinder the recent modest progress we’ve made in lowering the cancer mortality rate. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that the pandemic led to a roughly 80 percent reduction in breast, colon, prostate, and lung cancer screenings last spring. While continued travel restrictions and fear of infection are factors, many potential patients who would normally be enrolled in cancer treatments don’t know they have cancer because of missed screenings. This means the damage has already been done. A survey conducted by the American Society for Radiation Oncology has already shown that oncologists have started seeing the effects of a drop in cancer screenings, with 66% of oncologists reported more first time patients have cancers in a later stage.


Recommended cancer screenings are an important part of the formula to reduce cancer mortality, lower costs, and improve quality of life. One study found that patients who experience minimal screening delays (less than three months) are seven percent more likely to survive breast cancer than those whose screenings are delayed longer (three to six months) – a survival benefit that is similar to the benefit achieved by chemotherapy. The drastic reduction in cancer screenings could negatively affect us here in Ohio, where we have the tenth highest cancer mortality rate in the country.

The challenge we face every day – separate and apart from the slowdown in screenings during COVID-19 – is that there’s no way to detect the vast majority (72%) of cancers early because multi-cancer screening technology has not been available. Today, there are only five cancers with available screenings – breast, cervical, colorectal, high-risk lung, and prostate. That means roughly seven out of every 10 cancer deaths are caused by cancers that lack available screenings.

But there is hope on the horizon and at least one good news story in 2021 so far.

An alternative, paradigm-changing approach is already underway that takes advantage of the latest scientific advancements in human genomics and machine learning.

By partnering with esteemed cancer research institutions like the Cleveland Clinic, Oncology Hematology Care, and the Carl & Edyth Lindner Center for Research & Education at the Christ Hospital to conduct clinical trials across Ohio, this innovative screening has shown extremely promising results.

Multi-cancer early detection would allow more patients to take advantage of innovative cancer treatments earlier, which would improve outcomes and quality of life for patients and their families. These tests could be administered by primary care physicians without requiring specific advanced training or equipment.

Multi-cancer early detection technologies can help build on the success of screenings for individual cancers. In fact, these new tests are designed to complement current screenings and help us make even greater strides in the War on Cancer. A WHO Rapid Assessment Survey found that “chronic interplay” between COVID-19 and the underinvestment in the prevention, early diagnosis, and rehabilitation of noncommunicable diseases, including cancer, will likely increase deaths from noncommunicable diseases long-term.

We are on the cusp of a significant breakthrough in cancer detection that could ripple through the country and globe in the years ahead – a breakthrough that could result in earlier diagnoses for most of the cancers for which we have no available screenings.

As the second leading cause of death in the U.S., cancer results in more than 600,000 loved ones lost to cancer each year. One model indicates that if metastatic cancers were diagnosed at earlier stages, the U.S. could see a reduction of 24% of all cancer-related deaths, corresponding to a reduction in all-cause mortality comparable in magnitude to eliminating deaths due to cerebrovascular disease. We see this ambitious goal as one that’s more than worth pursuing.

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