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Biopsies not only help doctors diagnose cancer, but can also determine which treatment may work best. The downside is tissue biopsies are invasive; they can be painful to obtain and there’s often a long waiting period for results.

What if there was an easier way to get a glimpse into the inner working of a tumor?

According to a press briefing from the upcoming American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting, researchers found a blood test called a liquid biopsy could be a solution. The study showed the test, known as Guardant360, was as effective as a tissue sample at identifying important mutations in non-small cell lung cancer.

Dr. Matthew Schabath, cancer epidemiologist

“Though additional validation efforts will still be needed, these results are quite compelling as they provide further evidence of the utility, accuracy and importance of liquid biopsies to speed up the process of molecular diagnostics in lung cancer,” said Dr. Matthew Schabath, cancer epidemiologist at Moffitt Cancer Center.    

Schabath says the major benefit of liquid biopsies is the speed of testing. “By identifying these abnormalities faster, oncologists can quickly begin treating patients using agents that target the identified genetic abnormality,” he said. In the study, the results of a liquid biopsy took about nine days, compared with an average of more than two weeks for tissue-based testing.

About 30 percent of lung cancers can now be treated with targeted therapies based on genetic markers in tumors, but the study’s researchers say that testing is done in only about 8 percent of people with non-small cell lung cancer. They say the liquid biopsies could help close that gap, allowing more patients to access the proper treatment therapies. 

Schabath says liquid biopsies could be a great complement to CT scans. Where the scan is a reliable method to detect an abnormality, the liquid biopsy could provide the best treatment option.