A recently developed method of diagnosing 13 kinds of cancer from a single drop of blood can lead to early detection of the disease. The relatively inexpensive test puts less burden on patients, but it still needs further improvement in accuracy.

The new blood test was developed by a team of researchers from the National Cancer Center Japan in Tokyo and other entities. They began a clinical test of the method this month. Until now, there has not been a test that could detect so many kinds of cancer at one time.

The test builds hope for treatment at an early stage to reduce cancer deaths, and is also expected to cut down on medical expenses. The team plans to ask the government to put it into practical use as early as within three years.

“By using a blood sample taken for a comprehensive medical examination or other checkups, this new test can detect which type of cancer a patient has from an early stage. It is an unprecedented examination method,” said Takahiro Ochiya, chief of the Molecular and Cellular Medicine Division at the National Cancer Center Research Institute, who leads the team for the new test.

The researchers focused on a molecular substance called microRNA, or miRNA, as the key to the new technologies. Cancer cells secrete specific kinds of miRNA, which differ depending on the type of cancer.

The team began the research in 2014. After obtaining 8 billion yen of government funds, the team examined secretion patterns of types of miRNA by using blood samples of 40,000 elderly individuals that had been preserved by the institute and other entities. The samples included those from cancer patients as well as people without cancer.

The team successfully detected the patterns of breast, colorectal, pancreatic, biliary tract, esophageal, liver, ovarian, lung, stomach, bladder and prostate cancers, which are major cancers among Japanese people.

They also detected patterns for glioma, which accounts for 30 percent of brain tumors, as well as a rare bone cancer and a type of soft tissue tumor.

The progression of cancer is indicated in four different stages from the early Stage 1 to the most advanced Stage 4.

The researchers were able to diagnose patients with breast cancer – including those at Stage 1 – by analyzing five types of miRNA, with 97 percent accuracy.

The team also detected other kinds of cancer with at least 95 percent accuracy.