Doug Flora, MD, knows the value of early cancer detection because it helped him survive kidney cancer 5 years ago. But as a medical oncologist and hematologist, and the executive medical director of oncology services at St. Elizabeth Healthcare in Edgewood, Ky., he also knows that a new era of early cancer detection testing poses big challenges for his network of six hospitals and 169 specialty and primary care offices throughout Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana.
Multicancer early detection (MCED) tests are finally a reality and could be a potential game changer because they can screen for the possibility of up to 50 different cancers in asymptomatic individuals with one blood draw. They represent one of the fastest growing segments in medical diagnostics with a projected value of $2.77 billion by 2030, according to the market research firm Grand View Research.
These tests are different from traditional liquid biopsies which are designed to identify actionable gene mutations to help inform treatment decisions of patients already diagnosed with cancer. Instead, MCED tests work to detect fragments of circulating free that have been shed by tumors and released into the bloodstream. Detecting these cancer signals could indicate that an individual has cancer well before they ever develop symptoms.
For some cancer types, particularly those commonly diagnosed at advanced stages or those without general population screening tests, MCED testing could have a significant impact.
In its new report, Grand View Research highlights nine “prominent players” active in the MCED market; of these, two have been granted breakthrough device designation by the Food and Drug Administration: OverC MCDBT by Burning Rock on Jan. 3, 2023, and Galleri by Grail in 2019. Galleri was launched in June 2021 and can be obtained with a prescription at a cost of $949.
Yet, while patients are asking for these tests and primary care physicians are prescribing them, oncologists are grappling with how to manage the first patients whose tests tell them they may have cancer.
Ordering the tests may seem straightforward, but in reality, it is not. In fact, they are so new that most health systems have no internal guidelines for physicians. Guidelines would address when the tests should be prescribed, and whether a patient should undergo more testing or be referred to an oncologist.
Clinical trials underway
There are currently at least 17 clinical trials underway to investigate the performance and clinical utility of MCED tests. Six of these involve Grail, including NHS-Galleri, the largest study to date of 140,000 participants in the United Kingdom where participants will be followed for 3 years with annual visits at 12 and 24 months. And, the National Cancer Institute is spearheading a clinical trial of its own, according to a search of ClinicalTrials.gov.
In September 2022, Grail presented findings from its pivotal PATHFINDER study at the annual meeting of the European Society of Medical Oncology. Researchers reported that cancer signals were detected in 1.4% (92) of 6,621 participants enrolled in the study. Of the 92, 35 people were diagnosed with 36 cancers: 19 were solid tumors (2 oropharyngeal, 5 breast, l liver, 1 intrahepatic bile duct, 2 colon/rectum, 2 prostate, 1 lung, 1 pancreas, 1 small intestine, 1 uterus, 1 ovary and 1 bone) and 17 hematologic cancers (1 plasma cell myeloma/disorders, 2 lymphoid leukemia, 2 Waldenström’s macroglobulinemia, and 12 lymphoma).
Almost half of newly diagnosed cases were cancers in stage 1 or 2. Of stage 1 cancers, three were solid tumors and four were hematologic cancers. Of stage 2 cancers, three were solid tumors and four were hematologic cancers. All other cancers were in stage 3 and 4 or were listed as recurrent or no stage. Deb Schrag, MD, MPH, chair of the department of medicine at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, who presented the results from PATHFINDER at ESMO, reported that, of all diagnosed cancers, only breast, colon/rectum, prostate, and lung have established screening protocols.
The findings were so striking that the meeting scientific co-chair, Fabrice André, MD, PhD, told ESMO the oncology field must prepare for an onslaught of new patients.
“Within the next 5 years, we will need more doctors, surgeons and nurses with more diagnostic and treatment infrastructures to care for the rising number of people who will be identified by multicancer early detection tests,” said Dr. André, who is director of research at Gustave Roussy Cancer Center, Villejuif, France, and future president of ESMO (2025-2026). “We need to involve all stakeholders in deciding new pathways of care. We need to agree who will be tested and when and where tests will be carried out, and to anticipate the changes that will happen as a result of these tests.”
But first, he urged, the need for comparative trials “across all types of cancer to find out if having an early detection test affects morbidity and mortality. We also need to know how the tests benefit patients, and how to discuss the results with them,” Dr. André said.
Demand may burden health systems
Dr. Flora suggested that companies like Grail are rushing their product to market without conducting long-term sizable clinical trials.
“These diagnostic companies are a billion dollar publicly traded or venture capital-funded companies that are losing millions of dollars a quarter as they’re scaling up these tests. So, there is some pressure on the sales forces … to start moving product long before the science has met our lowest areas for entry,” Dr. Flora said. “They are aggressively marketing to a primary care audience that knows nothing about MCEDs. It’s a sales-driven development solving a problem we all believe is real, but we don’t know if it actually solves the problem.”
There are many unanswered questions, he said. Among these include whether the tests do indeed extend survival. “What they’re suggesting – that is if the blood test detects it – that we’re going to save your life. That’s not yet been proven. This is where the providers are pushing back against these industry types to say: ‘This is the wild west right now.’ It’s very irresponsible to go out there and try to sell hundreds of millions of dollars of product to doctors who have never studied genetics,” Dr. Flora said.
Grail’s chief medical officer Jeff Venstrom, MD, however, said physicians don’t need a background in genetic testing to order or interpret Galleri because it’s not a genetic test. Genetic tests look for genetic variants associated with cancer risk, which Galleri does not. MCED tests rely on genomic profiling to identify alterations in tumors.
“Maybe there’s still confusion in the market, which is common for new technologies when they’re initially launched. This is not a 23andMe test. We do not report germline mutations that have implications for cancer risk. We’re using this blood sample to test for the presence or absence of a cancer signal. The test result is very clear and simple: One area of the report says ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ It is a binary result that says if a signal is detected or not. The second provides additional information around where that signal could be coming from,” he said.
Galleri could fill a huge unmet need in cancer prevention, Dr. Venstrom said. Not only could it detect cancer at an earlier stage, but it could serve as a screening tool for cancers like pancreatic cancer in which screening is not available.
The test is not intended to replace standard of care screening, he said. The ordering provider should have a conversation with the patient about overall cancer risk. “Are you smoking? What’s your risk of obesity-associated cancers? Do you have a family history of cancer? I think this should all be in the context of a good conversation around preventative care,” he said.
Planning and prep in Boston
In Boston, Aparna Parikh, MD, an oncologist who specializes in gastrointestinal cancers, agreed that MCED testing has forced her team at the Mass General Cancer Center global cancer care program to think outside of the box.
“We’re a major academic center and it’s not easy [because] this is all uncharted territory,” she said. “We all recognize there are more tests coming, and they are here to stay. As a health system, we have to be ready to manage not only the tests, but patient anxieties, and all the complexities that come with it. We just don’t know yet how to best navigate.”
Although Dr. Parikh’s center has set up a working group tasked with organizing an outpatient clinic for patients with positive MCED tests, the current system is haphazard.
“Right now, it gets bounced around between people,” she explained. “Sometimes, patients are getting referred to the oncology team rather than the primary care team to try to sort out where the cancer signal is coming from, that is, if it’s not immediately obvious. No one really knows who should be the right person to own it,” Dr. Parikh said. While the test is supposed to give tissue-specific results, “it’s not perfect” and sometimes imaging and other work-ups are needed to locate the source of the signa.
“A group of four or five oncologists get looped in and then we’re trying to sort it out on a case-by-case basis, but understanding that with more and more tests coming, that kind of ad hoc approach isn’t going to be sufficient. We need a happy medium between the primary care and the disease specific oncologist, someone who can kind of help think through the diagnostic workup until they have a cancer diagnosis to get them to the right place,” Dr. Parikh said.
Dr. Venstrom said Grail is committed to providing support to clinicians in these situations. “We’re doing everything we can with our medical education forums. We have this pretty intense and extensive postpositive suite of resources,” he explained. “Some of our doctors on staff call the ordering provider within 24 hours just to clarify if there are any questions or confusion from the report. For example, if it suggests the signal is coming from the lung, we provide additional support around additional workups.”
Out-of-pocket test may widen disparities in care
With the exception of a few health insurance companies that have committed to covering some of the cost for the test, Galleri is an out-of-pocket expense.
Dr. Venstrom acknowledged that broad insurance coverage for the Galleri test remains a hurdle, although “we’ve secured coverage for a handful of companies of self-insured employers and forward-thinking insurers.” This includes partnerships with Point32Health, and Alignment Health, among others, he said.
There is also growing support among more than 400 cancer organizations for the Multi-Cancer Early Detection Screening Coverage Act to accelerate coverage for Medicare beneficiaries. “We are constantly trying to understand the evidence that’s needed for payors to make sure that we get the broadest access possible for this test,” he said.
The first positive test result
Back at St. Elizabeth Healthcare where they’ve only seen one positive MCED test result thus far, Dr. Flora is more concerned about patients giving informed consent before they even get the test. “When the reps started hammering our primary care doctors, we sent communiques throughout the system saying that we would very much like to regulate this to make sure that before our patients receive accidental harm, that they at least have a conversation with somebody who understands the test,” he explained.
All 15 patients who requested the test at the hospital were first required to discuss the implications with a genetic counselor who is part of the system. “We are really pro–cancer screening,” he said, but added his hospital is “not pumped” about the Galleri test. “We’re being very cautious about overstatements made by sales guys to our primary care doctors, so we’re letting our own precision medicine people handle it.”
There’s a similar system in place at Community Health Network, a nonprofit health system with nine hospitals and 1,300 employee providers throughout Central Indiana. Patrick McGill, MD, a primary care physician and chief analytics officer for the network says they have streamlined patients with positive tests through their high-risk oncology clinic. “They don’t go straight to a medical oncologist which I know some systems are struggling with,” he said. “They get additional testing, whether it’s imaging they might need or other lab testing. We’ve had a few lung positives, and a few leukemia positives which might go straight to medical oncology. I think we had one breast that was positive so she got additional breast imaging.”
Through its foundation, CHN will offer 2,000 tests free of charge. “We decided to take cost off the table with this funding,” Dr. McGill said. “A lot of health systems I talk to are always concerned that insurance doesn’t cover it and it’s cost prohibitive. Is it creating additional disparities because only people who can afford it can get the test?”
Dr. Schrag serves as an uncompensated advisor for Grail. Previously, while with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, she received research funding from Grail.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.
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