Cancer is one of the most prevalent diseases affecting our world. Scientists argue that early detection of cancer is the most crucial precaution to save lives. A study from the University of Exeter suggests having a simple blood test could be an equally accurate breast cancer predictor to finding lumps in the breast.
In the common blood test, a key factor that is monitored is platelet levels. Platelets are small blood cells that move throughout the body and cluster at wounds to prevent bleeding and further injury. However, some individuals can produce an excessive number of platelets due to a disorder known as “thrombocytosis”.
In the UK, thrombocytosis is a burden for approximately half a million people aged over 40. Interestingly, prior research has shown that those with thrombocytosis have an increased risk of developing a variety of cancers. This recently led to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence establishing guidelines to healthcare professionals warning that a high platelet count in patients may be an indicator of lung, stomach, oesophageal or uterus cancer.
Despite the guidelines, researchers admitted they were unable to determine if thrombocytosis was an accurate predictor of cancers at all sites of the body. They were also unable to tell how the cancer risk varied amongst thrombocytosis individuals of different ages and genders.
some individuals can produce an excessive number of platelets due to a disorder known as “thrombocytosis”
To investigate this further, Dr Bailey’s team from the University of Exeter Medical School conducted a large-scale analysis on data of patients who had a blood test conducted by their GP. 40,000 thrombocytosis patients with a high platelet count were monitored over a year to observe the incidences of cancer. These results were then compared to 10,000 matched control patients with a healthy platelet level.
Results showed that cancer occurred most in thrombocytosis patients, with 11.6% of men and 6.2% of women being affected, compared to 4.1% of men and 2.2% of women with a healthy platelet level. There was a 7.5% and 4 % increase in cancer incidence for thrombocytosis men and women respectively, when compared to their controls. For comparison only 8.5% of women aged 50-59 with a breast lump are diagnosed with breast cancer. These results indicate that thrombocytosis is almost as good at predicting cancer as the well-known sign of lumps in the breast are for breast cancer.
Furthermore, cancer was found more often in men with an increased platelet count than women. This was suggested to be since there are more factors influencing platelet levels in women, which are unlinked to cancer. In addition, for those who had thrombocytosis long term (a high platelet level for six months’ post thrombocytosis diagnosis), more cancer incidences were found.
In men, 18.1% developed cancer, whereas in women 10.1% developed cancer. Amongst these cases, a range of cancers were observed. Lung and colorectal cancers were most common in thrombocytosis patients, while breast and prostate cancers were less frequent. Astoundingly for a third of the thrombocytosis patients with lung and colorectal cancer, no other symptoms had appeared that indicated a cancer diagnosis. Researchers estimate that this could allow thousands of patients every year to be diagnosed with cancer at least three months earlier than by any other detection method. This means that life-saving treatment could begin at a much earlier stage in cancer progression.
thrombocytosis is almost as good at predicting cancer as the well-known sign of lumps in the breast
Dr Jasmine Just, Cancer Research UK’s health information officer claims the remaining goal is to confirm that any further tests after high platelet count detection will really save lives. It must be noted that on some occasions a high platelet count could be unrelated to cancer. Nonetheless, the impact of this study is incredibly promising, as it is anticipated that GPs will soon be testing patients found with high platelet levels for cancer, especially when there are no other symptoms apparent.