Chiang-Ching (Spencer) Huang

Liquid biopsies could lead to better cancer treatments

Liquid biopsies offer a way to search for cancer cells in the blood and other bodily fluids, perhaps before symptoms appear. They hold the promise of a less-intrusive alternative to traditional surgical biopsies that also provides better cancer detection and treatment.

Chiang-Ching (Spencer) Huang, an associate professor of biostatistics in the Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health, uses big data to study the potential of liquid biopsies. “We want to know how accurate tests are in detecting cancer cells in the blood,” he says.

Scientists already know that fragments of tumor DNA are released into the blood. With DNA extracted from the blood of cancer patients and of people who are healthy, Huang is using statistical analysis to sort through humongous amounts of genomic data.

This involves leveraging modern genomic technologies, as well as bioinformatics and biostatistical techniques. He wants to identify robust biomarkers, such as tumor-specific chromosome alterations, that are linked to certain types of cancerous cells.

Traditional surgical biopsies offer only a snapshot of a tumor, Huang explains. Liquid biopsies could paint a broader picture, not only giving doctors an earlier heads up about potential cancers, but also helping to understand the complex genetic profile of a tumor and contributing to better treatment.

That, in turn, would make it easier to predict risk and assess a treatment’s effectiveness. “Development of more sensitive and specific tests to monitor the treatment response is clearly needed,” Huang says.

The research’s ultimate goal: discovering how to accurately use these techniques in everyday health care to detect tumor cells and genetic mutations in bodily fluids.

“We are able to measure glucose and cholesterol in routine screenings,” Huang says.

“When we are able to find cancers in a routine check in the very early stages, they are much easier to treat.”