ORLANDO, Fla. – People diagnosed with early stage cancer have a greater chance at beating it. But when that cancer has spread, the odds are much lower.
For example, the five-year survival rate for someone with Stage 1 colon cancer is 92 percent. But the five-year survival rate for someone with Stage 4 is just 12 percent.
A team of researchers is working to stop these dangerous cancer cells from spreading.
Beth McCaw-McKinney did everything right.
“She ate healthy. She exercised. She always did her breast cancer examinations, pap smears. All that was on time,” said her sister, Cathy McCaw-Engelman.
But then at age 53, she had her first colonoscopy.
“They found a grapefruit-sized tumor in her colon. It was already in her lymph nodes and basically had spread,” McCaw-Engelman said.
Doctors gave McCaw-McKinney three months to live. She lived three years. Professor Annette Khaled and her team study metastatic cancer cells and are looking to help people like McCaw-McKinney. Thanks to a donation from her family, they now have a new weapon in their fight against cancer: the CellSearch system.
“CellSearch is a system that uses blood from cancer patients, and we’re able to detect circulating tumor cells,” said Ana Martini, post-doctoral scientist at UCF College of Medicine.
These are cancer cells that have spread to other parts of the body. The system allows them to separate, analyze and count the number of these cells. It can detect as few as two to three cancer cells in a teaspoon of blood.
With that information they can try to "understand what are the steps and what are the changes that cells undergo, cancer cells undergo, from the tumor to become a circulating tumor cell,” said Annette Khaled, professor of medicine and head of the cancer research division at Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences at UCF College of Medicine.
They can also look into "how we can develop therapies to inhibit or prevent these circulating tumor cells,” Khaled said.
And stop the spread of cancer in its tracks.
The CellSearch system is FDA-approved for clinical purposes and has been around for 10 years, but only a handful of institutions have one.
According to Khaled, doctors can test the number of circulating tumor cells to determine how far a person’s cancer has advanced to hopefully determine if a particular therapy is working.