Researchers attending the world’s biggest cancer conference in Chicago unveiled studies showing that a blood test accurately picks up mutations for several different types of cancer.
Work is now under way, backed by Microsoft founder and billionaire Bill Gates, to use this knowledge to develop a screening test that can find the earliest signs of cancer in people who appear healthy.
The hope is that people could have the test in their GP surgery as part of an annual health check, alongside monitoring of their blood pressure or cholesterol.
Those that are found to have cancer could then have surgery or other treatment. The move could potentially prevent thousands of deaths per year from advanced cancer.
The US firm Grail, which is backed by $100m (£77.5m) of funding from Gates and Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, has set a goal of introducing such a test by 2019.
The technique could also be used to spare people with cancer from needing to undergo painful biopsies of their tumour.
Dr Nicholas Turner, from the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in London and the Royal Marsden, said there was excitement about the prospect.
He said: “The potential is absolutely clear and the potential is very exciting – that you might be able to screen patients to detect whether they’ve got cancer by looking for traces of cancer in the blood.
“The potential is dramatic if we could identify patients with, say, pancreatic or lung cancer at the point they could all have surgery, you could potentially transform management of the disease and survival for patients.
“The cancer community is extremely excited about the potential but whether that potential can be achieved is not clear enough yet.”