NHS gives cancer patients genetic test to select best treatment

Patients with the cancers will be offered the rapid new test to help decide whether to go ahead with treatment, opt for a lower dose or use a different method of tackling tumours.

While most patients undergoing chemotherapy do not suffer sever side effects a small number taking certain drugs called fluoropyrimidines (5-FU and capecitabine) can suffer nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, breathlessness and severe skin reactions and, in rare cases, the reaction can be fatal.

The blood test detects a particular form of a gene which means that someone is less able to break down chemotherapy drugs in their body.

As many as 40% of those who get tested are expected to benefit from starting on a lower dose, or have a different treatment altogether.

Professor Peter Johnson, NHS England National Clinical Director for Cancer, said: “Cancer survival rates are at a record high but the condition still causes huge suffering for millions of patients and their loved ones every year.

“This test can help us to treat people with cancer as safely as possible, at what has been and continues to be an exceptionally a difficult time for millions of us.

“The number of people having their cancer care with the NHS is back to levels we saw before COVID-19, with nearly 350,000 having treatment since the first peak, and as the NHS continues to prioritise essential cancer care, this latest innovation is another important tool to ensure people in England get the best possible treatment.”

The test, which was only previously available at a small number of hospitals, will now be funded across the country by NHS England and NHS Improvement is now funding the testing across England.

It is the latest in a series of ground-breaking innovations and genomic discoveries adopted by the NHS to deliver world leading personalised cancer care.

Survival rates are already at a record high but the NHS Long Term Plan aims to catch three quarters of cancers at an early stage, when they are easier to treat.

And the NHS has prioritised cancer treatment during the coronavirus pandemic, allowing one million people to be referred for treatment for the disease within two weeks.

Professor Dame Sue Hill, Chief Scientific Officer for England and Senior Responsible Officer for Genomics in NHS England said: “This announcement marks an important moment for how genomics can help tailor treatments to make them safer for patients with cancer.

“As our understanding of the role our DNA plays in disease grows, we will be able to use this approach to help develop personalised treatments for other conditions and embed genomics into routine care.”

John McGuire, 71, from London, is undergoing chemotherapy for colorectal cancer at Guy’s Hospital. He was tested and found to have the form of the gene, so was put on a lower dose.

John said: “I’m delighted with the treatment I have received from the team at Guy’s Hospital and have had little to no side-effects from my treatment. I’m nearly halfway through my treatment now and I think I am going to be really happy with the outcome.”

John’s treatment aims to cure his cancer, and his medical team say he is progressing well.

Dr Simon Vincent, Director of Research, Support and Influencing at Breast Cancer Now said: “The national roll-out of this test is a welcome step towards ensuring that everyone being treated for cancer with chemotherapy is given the most appropriate, and kindest, treatment based on their genetic makeup.

“Fluoropyrimidines are used to treat some breast cancer tumours, and we look forward to this test being available to provide insight on the side effects of these drugs for certain women, so that they and their healthcare team can make the most informed decisions about their treatment.”

Introductions of the test follows the announcement of a new course of testing and treatment that target tumours based on changes in their DNA.

The NHS also secured a landmark £160 million deal for covid-friendly  cancer drugs which do not hit patients’ immune systems so hard or reduce the number of hospital trips they need to make for treatment.