Most cancer-related diseases are managed using imaging and a solid tissue biopsy. Researchers like Dr. Steven Soper are using blood as a source for biomarkers to detect those same diseases using “liquid biopsies”. There are many clear advantages over tissue biopsies because sampling the blood is minimally invasive and avoids the complications of traditional biopsies. The current standard diagnostic method for diagnosing a tumor is a solid tissue biopsy, but many times a solid tissue biopsy doesn’t provide a complete picture of the disease, for example it does not in many cases provide information on metastatic sites. This is a problem because over 90% of patients die from metastatic disease; far more than from the primary tumor.
This work is personal for Dr. Soper. His father died from colon cancer and, like many patients, never had a colonoscopy. There are approximately 150,000 new cases of colon cancer diagnosed every year. In many cases, by the time it is diagnosed it has spread to other organs. Colon cancer is very treatable if caught early enough, when it is still localized to the colon. But once it has reached a metastatic state and spreads to other organs like the liver, it is very difficult to effectively treat. The current diagnostic strategy for colon cancer is invasive and represents one of the biggest problems in cancer detection, which is patient compliance. Patients often wait until they have symptoms before they have a colonoscopy, and by then it could be too late. People are more likely to get their annual physical with a liquid biopsy (blood test) instead of waiting to react to symptoms or conversely, inaction because of no symptoms. Dr. Soper is working on an alternative diagnostic strategy, which is based on a blood draw during a physical to check for biomarkers like circulating tumor cells to identify diseases early enough to treat more effectively.
Seeking disease indicators in the blood through liquid biopsies allows researchers and doctors to use more frequent sampling with much better outcomes for those patients. The blood-based test minimizes patient burden and allows for a broader geographic reach from urban to rural communities. This impacts patients by removing geographic barriers of accessing urban cancer centers. Dr. Soper’s team works with physicians to develop solutions for diagnostic questions. Moreover, he is pleased that it is happening right here in our region at the University of Kansas.
Biomedical Engineering is a key focus for KU and KUMC as it continues its growth and development as a part of the engineering career portfolio. Dr. Soper came to KU/KUMC to help shape the biomedical engineering program for sustained impact regionally through patients, students and the economy. Beyond publishing papers, Soper’s group works to improve patient care at the bedside national and globally. Their goal is to provide diagnostic tools that are accessible and available. This goal has been facilitated by the generation of biotechnology startup companies that seek to commercialize discoveries emanating from the Soper lab. These activities not only help to improve patient care, but also create job opportunities.
“In high school I was always questioning things; by nature, I am a very inquisitive person. I think that is what gets you going, the ability to question things and want to learn new things all the time,” Dr. Soper said. He started his career in science, but now considers himself more of a biomedical engineer, developing better technologies to help patients. He sees the job of a biomedical engineer as someone that designs and implements new tools and strategies for health-related problems.
Dr. Soper knows that his dad would be proud of him for the work he is leading and how he has the potential to change the consequences for people that are faced with cancer.