MGH/J&J deal raises hope, as well as scientific questions

Today’s story in the Globe about MGH’s partnership with Mass General raises a lot of hope and a lot of questions.The hospital and the drug company are teaming up to develop a chip that detects traces of cancer in the blood. As the story reports, MGH already has a prototype.

Here’s a link to the company press release.

Here’s a link to the Globe story:

The partnership — a five-year, roughly $30 million deal — is aimed at refining and commercializing a next-generation test that could allow physicians to better target cancer-treatment regimens and monitor patients’ responses to drugs.

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have already developed a prototype of a microchip that can detect tumor cells at extremely low levels in the bloodstream.

We wondered what kind of financial arrangement MGH has set up and found out:  See Nature Network Boston for details.

As far as the science goes, some of the commenters on the Globe page are raising other questions about what this means for patients. Will the cancer it detects necessarily cause disease? Will it more like an unreliable prostate cancer test or a more reliable biopsy?

One comment reads…

I hope the test doesn’t have lots of false positives to drive people into unnecessary panic. Otherwise, it will be wonderful and should be as routinely used..

 Leonard Lichtenfeld’s American Cancer Society blog give the researchers credit for moving in the right direction. Them, he has this to say.

First, and perhaps the most obvious, is the fact that this is an announcement of a research deal.  Nothing more, nothing less.  It is not a new breakthrough. It is not something that has been proven effective in improving cancer detection and treatment … 

More and more, researchers are becoming concerned that as our ability to find cancers earlier becomes better and better, we are also finding more cancers that would never have caused anyone any problem (hard to believe, but it is now likely that such cancers exist).  

What would be the impact of finding a cancer so early that we couldn’t even see it?  Would we treat it with aggressive chemotherapy or radiation?  You can see where I am going with this discussion: finding cancer early is frequently-but not always-a good thing.  What we really need now is a test that will help us understand which cancers will likely cause harm and require treatment, while helping us “ignore” those which are never destined to cause a problem.

 So our technology advances, and with it comes the burden of determining whether or not such new technologies really make a difference. 

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