By Ivor Campbell

THE recent announcement that the NHS is taking part in a major new clinical trial for a blood test that could detect more than 50 cancers early has been welcomed as a potential, once-in-a-generation breakthrough.

The health service is partnering with Silicon Valley-based healthcare company Grail Inc in a randomised control trial involving up to 140,000 volunteers.

The Galleri test will look at the DNA in each patient's blood to determine if any comes from tumours, which shed cell-free nucleic acids (cfDNA), carrying signals specific to cancer. If successful it could lead to earlier diagnoses of cancers, with dramatically increased survival rates.

Knowledge about the potential of blood testing for cancers has been around for a long time and there remain some major complications to overcome.

One of the first questions worth asking is why the UK health service is working with an American company on a potential diagnosis that could play such a significant role in the future of healthcare, particularly when there are several British firms working in the same field?

Glasgow-based Dxcover has already developed a blood test which, combined with artificial intelligence, aims to fast-track patients suspected to have a brain tumour for further treatment.

The answer lies, inevitably, with cost. Anyone familiar with this area of research will be aware of Biosignatures, a UK company which spent 12 years working on a similar test, which raised more than £10 million in equity funding before investors got cold feet.

In comparison, Grail has raised $2 billion in the US to get to the same stage, but there’s no guarantee even that will be enough to get a product to market.

Biosignatures co-founder Will Dracup, who invested £3mof his own money in the venture, said: “We didn’t make as fast progress as we’d have liked because we couldn’t afford to. We got the first test to the point of a clinical trial and it worked, at which point we thought we would walk into funding – but we didn’t.”

In an ideal world, the NHS would own the technology needed to solve its biggest public health problem, while also being able to license a successful blood test for cancers to health services around the world, generating additional revenues that could be invested back into improving UK healthcare.

However, the NHS is not geared towards investing in as-yet untested treatments, and health trust managers tend to shy away from any opportunities to generate additional revenues, for fear that the equivalent amount will be removed from their budgets by the Treasury.

Even if Grail Inc is successful, the ability to extend the lives of the general population through early diagnoses carries other, associated problems, with co-morbidities.

According to David Bramwell, the other co-founder of Biosignatures, the term "life expectancy" will become less relevant to future generations who will be taught to focus instead on their ‘healthy life expectancy.’

He said: “Life expectancy in the UK is about 82 years old but healthy life expectancy, which people are going to hear a lot more about, is about 20 years behind that."

Ivor Campbell is Managing Director of Stirlingshire-based Snedden Campbell, a search company for the medical technology industry.