The Future of Diagnosis – Are Blood Tests Soon to be a Thing of The Past?

blood tests

By Wesley Baker, CEO of ANCON Medical

The history of medicine is haunted by stories of the archaic practices from days gone by – whether that be the use of leeches, at the relatively harmless end, or the brutality of trepanning to treat headaches. There are undoubtedly procedures used today that in 50 years will inspire the same incredulity that we feel looking back today.

Chemotherapy is often the best option for patients diagnosed with cancer, and yet it is fairly widely accepted that it is often a case of hoping it kills the cancer before the patient – it is by no means a selective treatment. Things are getting better, with cancer treatments becoming more specialised and less damaging to healthy tissue but there is a long way to go.

One of the most ubiquitous procedures in medicine is the blood test, used for diagnosis, tracking diabetes and a myriad of other applications. The blood is almost always taken with a needle through a venous draw – something that is not at the best of times particularly easy or pleasant. Other blood extraction methods such as finger pricks can’t provide the quantity necessary and besides often lead to misleading results as red blood cells break down during the relative trauma of squeezing a drop from the end of your finger.

At times when blood tests are especially vital, when patients are undergoing intense treatment, is when needles become least effective. There is a myriad of stories of people having to go through almost constant and often traumatic blood tests drawn from veins during treatment and diagnosis. Chemotherapy can cause the collapse of veins in cancer patients as doctors try to keep track of liver and kidney function that are often damaged by the treatment.

The vast majority of current diagnosis methods rely on the use of these kinds of blood tests and invasive biopsies to accurately diagnose serious illnesses. These illnesses rely on early diagnosis for survivability, with survival rates varying from 90% to 10%. So clearly there is significant value in regularly having these tests, but with them being so unpleasant this rarely happens.

It is estimated that around 5% of people have a phobia of blood, and that 15% have a phobia of needles. These figures are also likely to be higher than reported as people with the phobias are much more likely to avoid visiting the doctor altogether. It hardly surprising given the unnatural nature of having to have sharp objects put into your arm by someone you rarely know, especially given the horror stories of being repeatedly jabbed while a doctor or nurse tries to find a vein.

This reluctance to get diagnosed is likely having a marked impact on survival rates. Research that we conducted at ANCON Medical showed that around 50% of the UK has not visited a doctor in up to five years with 4.3million avoiding the doctor despite currently suffering from serious symptoms. While a fair portion of this can be put down to a lack of time or the doctor’s opening hours conflicting with the work day, the invasive and painful tests don’t help matters.

If these tests could be performed non-invasively and without the use of blood or needles it seems more than likely that more people will visit the doctor and take screening and diagnostic tests. This has been the ‘holy grail’ in diagnosis for a number of years especially if the tests can be made less expensive and time consuming than current methods.

The amount of time it takes to carry out these tests and for results to come back from the clinic creates acute anxiety for patients in what can already be an incredibly stressful time. Recent figures showed that NHS is currently struggling to meet the targets it sets itself in terms of how long it takes for cancer patients to start their treatment. Currently 76.9% of cancer patients are starting treatment within 62 days of their urgent GP referral.

One of the obvious solutions to these wait times would be to make use of innovation that is coming through to speed up and centralise data analysis. Key to this will be the use of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning technology, allowing doctors and medical professionals to spend their time with patients rather than poring over reems of test results.

Here at ANCON Medical we are currently developing an innovative technology based on Nanoparticle Biomarker Tagging that can diagnose lung cancer through a patient’s breath in as little as 10 minutes. We hope to extend the technology later to include over 400 over diseases and to be able to track organ function other markers that are currently tested through taking blood.

The vast data sets that will be produced by these tests when analysing the biomarker profiles present will then be processed by AI to give the result in the doctor’s surgery or point of care, a vast improvement compared to current methods of sending for results from a laboratory.

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