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Research from Dr Brian Nicholson and colleagues outlines how routine clinical tests could be widely used to estimate the risk of cancer for people visiting their GPs with unexpected weight loss.

Blood test tubes

Unexpected weight loss (UWL) is often one of the first noticeable symptoms of a broad range of cancers. However, there are many other non-cancer reasons for UWL, and only about 2 in 100 people with UWL will go on to receive a cancer diagnosis. As such, it’s important, for both patients and health service providers, to be able to identify those patients for whom cancer is a real possibility and treat them appropriately. Conversely, it’s important that patients for which UWL is unlikely to be linked to cancer are spared over-investigation, potential misdiagnosis, and the wider impacts on their lives of receiving a cancer diagnosis.

Dr Brian Nicholson and colleagues from the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Science’s Cancer Research Group analysed the electronic health records of 63,693 people in the England who visited their GP with UWL between January 2000 and December 2012, combining symptoms and test results to predict their risk of a cancer diagnosis within 6 months.

The research showed that the combined risk scores developed were superior in ruling in or out cancer than the more traditional symptoms-only based approach commonly used. However, the researchers note that further research is required to validate these findings in different datasets and populations.

 

What’s different about our study is that we were able to incorporate information from blood tests into the decision-making process, this allowed us to identify the impact these tests are likely to have in detecting those individuals that go on to develop cancer. - Co-author and Professor of Medical Statistics Dr Rafael Perera, also from the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford.

In an accompanying editorial the editors note that the research “clearly demonstrate[s] innovation in the use of routine clinical tools at scale. This type of model could potentially be scaled-up in under-resourced settings.”

 

We’re delighted to have had our paper included in this special collection, alongside five others from leaders in cancer detection across the world. - Dr Brian Nicholson, practising GP and Academic Clinical Lecturer at the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford.

 The research was published in PLOS Medicine and was featured in a PLOS Medicine editorial to the special issue.

Read the full story on the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences website.

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