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A less messy way to test for colorectal cancer

Searching for the presence of colorectal cancer can be a messy business.

It normally starts with a fecal occult blood test (FOBT). The patient collects some stool samples that are sent to a lab for analysis. If blood is found in the feces, a doctor usually recommends the patient have a colonoscopy, in which a flexible tube with a camera is inserted up the rectum for a closer inspection.

Few patients are fond of either procedure. Many shun them. And that means a lot of people aren't being screened for a disease that is Canada's second biggest cancer killer, claiming 8,900 lives each year.

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But now a Canadian biotech company, GeneNews Ltd., has introduced a "patient-friendly" prescreening test known as ColonSentry. All that's needed is a blood sample, which can be collected at a medical clinic. The blood is analyzed for the presence of biomarkers - in particular, messenger RNA, which indicates specific genes are responding to an active case of colon cancer.

If the test results turned out positive, the patient would have a colonoscopy to confirm the results.

Gailina Liew, chief operating officer of GeneNews, said the company's new test is far more accurate than the FOBT. So, in theory at least, far fewer patients would have to undergo unnecessary and costly colonoscopies.

However, the test isn't cheap - it costs $750. "This is an expensive technology that has lots of costs associated with it," said Wayne Marshall, the company's chief clinical scientist. He said the firm may be able eventually to develop a cheaper testing kit, "but that will be a couple of years down the road."

In the meantime, Ms. Liew said GeneNews is trying to get private insurance companies and large employers interested in footing the bill for the innovative technology.

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