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liquid biopsy

noun [countable]

a medical test in which blood cells are taken from the body and examined to find out if they are healthy

'The blood tests, known as liquid biopsies, represent one of the hottest trends in oncology. They take advantage of the fact that DNA fragments from tumors can be found in tiny amounts in the blood of patients with cancer.'

New York Times 4th June 2016

When the word liquid pops up in English compounds, it more often than not has light-hearted associations of going for a drink or two – think liquid refreshment or the indulgence of a liquid lunch. In the world of finance, where there's talk of liquid assets, it's a metaphor for fast cash and ease of sale, but of course it's also used literally – step into a 21st century bathroom and you'll more than likely wash your hands in liquid soap. Having grown up in the 70s, I happen to be a fan of the latter invention (no more squidgy, messy soap bars, ugh!) but there's a recent 'liquid' innovation which promises to be far more of a game-changer than a convenient form of detergent. Medical professionals the world over are now becoming excited about the advantages unlocked by a procedure known as a liquid biopsy.

perhaps the most significant advantage of liquid biopsy is its potential to enhance detection of cancers at a very early stage

A liquid biopsy, also sometimes referred to as a fluid biopsy, is the process of taking samples of 'non-solid' biological tissue (usually blood but sometimes urine or other bodily fluids) and analysing them for evidence of abnormalities connected with serious illness. Like conventional biopsies, the technique is primarily associated with diagnosing various types of cancer, but it also has applications in relation to heart disease, and even prenatal analysis of a mother's blood to determine illness in an unborn child.

Liquid biopsy is exciting because it opens up a range of benefits to patients. It potentially eliminates the need for them to undergo and recuperate from invasive surgical biopsies, which can be costly, painful and potentially risky. It could also provide a convenient and less cumbersome substitute for routine testing such as mammography or prostate examinations. But perhaps the most significant advantage of liquid biopsy is its potential to enhance detection of cancers at a very early stage – tumours that have previously only been detected when their critical mass is large enough to be picked up by imaging techniques could potentially be tracked and targeted much earlier through abnormal cells in the bloodstream.

Though use of liquid biopsy is still in its infancy and not yet seen as a complete substitute for conventional tissue analysis, it's now widely acknowledged as a game-changing innovation – one which has even been described as a 'Holy Grail' in cancer detection.

Background – liquid biopsy

The concept of liquid biopsy first emerged in 2013, when scientists began to acknowledge that technological advances had overcome the problem of distinguishing between healthy and cancerous DNA fragments within the blood. It follows a number of significant medical advances since the turn of the millennium, among them the living bandage a bandage made from skin cells grown from a sample of a patient's skin which has the potential to revolutionize the treatment of burns victims. More controversial innovations include the polypill, a pill containing a cocktail of drugs intended to prevent heart disease, and irisin, a newly identified hormone which purportedly reproduces the health benefits of exercise and a good diet.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published 2nd November 2016.

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