Advancing Health Equity: The Role of Liquid Biopsies in Addressing Disparities

Despite improvements in screening technologies, disparities in cancer screening persist, particularly among underserved and low-income communities. Only 6 percent of eligible patients undergo lung cancer screening, for instance, which highlights the need for innovative solutions.

In the quest to address these disparities, researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) are pioneering the use of liquid biopsies for malignancy detection. Nicholas Semenkovich, MD, PhD, assistant professor of endocrinology and molecular medicine, discusses this breakthrough technology in a recent article published in JAMA Oncology.

Liquid biopsies – already established in prenatal screening – hold the promise of detecting multiple malignancies simultaneously, offering the potential of early cancer detection and improved treatment outcomes. The diagnostic tool analyzes blood for circulating markers of cancer, offering a simple, minimally invasive alternative to traditional screening methods.

Dr. Nicholas Semenkovich explores the intersection of socioeconomic disparities and environmental exposures in his research and shows how liquid biopsy could address those issues. For example, a troubling legacy of environmental contamination in St. Louis, Missouri, has cast a shadow over its impoverished communities for decades.

Decisions made during the Manhattan Project resulted in the improper storage of nuclear waste near residential areas, including Coldwater Creek, a tributary of the Missouri River. The contamination has since been linked to increased risks of cancer, including lung cancer, bone sarcoma and leukemia.

Despite federal investigations to address the issue, some communities still grapple with the aftermath of the environmental pollution. Such areas have a need for accessible and effective healthcare solutions. Liquid biopsies offer the potential for early detection of cancers that disproportionately affect these vulnerable populations.

The interview also delves into Dr. Semenkovich’s interest in the application of liquid biopsies beyond oncology. He discusses ongoing research into sepsis detection to illustrate the potential of the technology in predicting a range of diseases.

“There are a lot of chronic diseases and diseases we don’t do a good job of treating that liquid biopsies might be able to identify earlier on,” he says. “In terms of earlier prediction of cardiovascular disease or intestinal conditions, which also have significant impact on vulnerable populations due to factors such as exposure, diet, microbiota and poverty, there is a critical need to identify and treat these diseases at their earliest stages.”

The Data Science Institute at MCW plays a crucial role in this endeavor. Through big data analytics, researchers analyze vast datasets generated from liquid biopsies to predict disease risks and improve patient outcomes. Dr. Semenkovich’s research aligns seamlessly with the institute’s mission, leveraging data science to drive innovation in healthcare and address pressing societal issues.

In addressing the disparities in cancer and other screenings, Dr. Semenkovich points out the practical challenges faced by disadvantaged communities.

“It’s hard to get time off work, to get a friend to drive you to a testing center, to undergo anesthesia, to get a procedure. It’s a big commitment for people who are disadvantaged,” he says. “If we had a very practical liquid biopsy that could screen these vulnerable populations, it could really improve outcomes for those patients.”

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Community Front Door  / Cancer