Oct 09, 2014 8:00 AM

Author: Office of Public Affairs

When you think about how doctors diagnose cancer, what are the first things that come to mind? For many people, it may be uncomfortable or intimidating procedures such as biopsies, colonoscopies and mammograms.

Visionary researchers are looking for better, faster and less-invasive ways to detect cancerous cells. These scientists hope their new methods will be able to find cancer earlier than conventional methods and be comfortable enough that people with risk factors will get tested.

“For all of the common cancers, we know that early detection is the best thing you can do,” says John Sweetenham, MD, a hematologist at University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute. “The outcomes are much better.”

In some cases, early detection may make it possible for patients to have cancer surgically removed. “You might still need to have radiation or chemotherapy, but your chance of cure will be much higher usually,” Sweetenham says.

One promising example of a new screening test is Cologuard, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in August. This noninvasive test for colorectal cancer can detect abnormal DNA and red blood cells in a patient’s stool sample. “The easier and simpler these things become, the more likely people will be to subject themselves to these tests,” Sweetenham says.

Last year, a collaboration led by Brigham Young University that included researchers from University of Utah developed a technique called sodium MRI that detects breast cancer by looking at sodium levels in the breast.

At the University of Texas at Austin, researchers announced in August the development of a noninvasive light probe that does a better job of revealing skin cancer. The pen-sized wand takes less than five seconds to do a reading, and its developers hope it will augment traditional biopsies and prevent unnecessary ones.

Meanwhile, a swab of saliva might help doctors detect pancreatic cancer by examining the bacteria in people’s mouths for certain abnormalities.

Doctors may even be able to detect cancer by simply having a patient exhale. Breath tests for lung and colorectal cancer have shown promising results in laboratory tests.

All these innovations might sound like science fiction, but doctors say they could be lifesavers. “The biggest advantage is, because they’re less invasive, more people will do them,” Sweetenham says.

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