Thyroid cancer affects some 52,070 people every year. Unfortunately, many individuals in Portland end up undergoing an unnecessary surgical procedure because the standard test for thyroid cancer is often inconclusive. Researchers have developed a new test that promises to reduce the number of surgeries once it is cleared for widespread use.
The Downside of Fine Needle Aspiration
Thyroid cancer is the most rapidly increasing cancer in the U.S., with the number of diagnoses tripling over the last three decades. Women are about three times more likely to be affected than men; regardless of gender, thyroid cancer is often diagnosed at a younger age than other types of cancer. The prognosis is good for most patients, though recurrence rates are high.
The standard diagnostic test for thyroid cancer is called fine needle aspiration (FNA). Unfortunately, results are inconclusive about 20 percent of the time. Follow-up genetic testing isn’t always reliable either, leaving many pathologists to err on the side of caution and recommend partial or total removal of the thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck that is responsible for regulating metabolism and controlling many important bodily functions. Thousands of patients undergo surgery every year, only to find out later that it was unnecessary.
New Metabolic Test Shows Promise
Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin and Baylor College of Medicine have developed a new test for thyroid cancer that is faster and considerably more accurate than current testing methods. The results, published in the October 7 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, found the preoperative test to be two-thirds more accurate than FNA. It relies on a technology called mass spectrometry imaging to identify metabolites produced by cancerous cells. 68 patients—a third of whom had received inconclusive results from their FNA—were tested during the clinical study. The new test came back with a false positive only 10 percent of the time and would have prevented 17 unnecessary surgeries had it been available initially.
Livia S. Eberlin, Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Diagnostic Medicine at the University of Texas at Austin and co-principal investigator of the study, said, “If we could prevent people from having surgery they don’t need and enable them to have a more precise diagnosis, we can improve treatment for patients and lower costs for the health care system.”
Added Rachel DeHoog, a graduate student involved in the study, “The ability to have certainty in your diagnosis is transformative for a patient presented with the grueling possibility of having cancer.”
Better accuracy offered by the new metabolic test would result in fewer unnecessary surgeries and prevent many patients from enduring a lifetime regimen of hormone replacement therapy to compensate for their missing thyroid.
Next up for the research team is a two-year validation study on FNAs collected from around 1,000 new patients. Should the results prove consistent with earlier testing, it’s hoped that the technology will lead to the development of a new routine diagnostic tool to replace or supplement the current method.
If you are experiencing symptoms that may be associated with thyroid cancer—including a lump in the front of the neck; swollen lymph nodes; hoarseness; difficulty swallowing or breathing; and pain in the throat or neck—schedule an appointment with a Portland ear, nose and throat specialist as soon as you can.