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New Cancer Test Could Save Patients From Diagnostic Surgeries

ThyroSeq, a new way of genetically testing thyroid nodules for cancer, could save patients an extra procedure.

Developed at the University of Pittsburgh, ThyroSeq is a genetic sequencing test that allows researchers to accurately diagnose a thyroid growth for cancer.

Dr. Yuri Nikiforov, director of thyroid molecular diagnostics at the Pitt School of Medicine, said thyroid nodules typically appear as a lump on the neck close to the “Adam’s apple.” He said they are more common in women and the elderly.

Nikiforov said about 90 percent of nodules are found to be benign, while about 5 percent are cancerous.

He said there is two ways doctors typically test for thyroid cancer. The first is an ultrasound, which gives doctors a good image of the thyroid, but cannot definitively diagnose a patent.

The other way is through a procedure called “fine needle aspiration,” which involves doctors performing a biopsy of the thyroid to collect cells and then examine them microscopically.

Nikiforov said, after a biopsy, only 70 percent of patients receive a clear diagnosis.

“The problem is that about 30 percent of thyroid nodules that are sampled by such a needle, they cannot be definitively diagnosed microscopically,” Nikiforov said.

He said about 100,000 people annually receive “indeterminate” results, where doctors still can’t tell if the nodule is cancerous. Normally, if a patient is one of those 30 percent, they then have a diagnostic surgery where a piece of the nodule is removed.

Nikiforov said ThyroSeq prevents that. Now, when a patient goes in for a biopsy, a “miniscule” amount of cells are saved to undergo testing if the results come back indeterminate.  

“It doesn’t have to be a separate office visit, it doesn’t need to be a more expensive procedure,” Nikiforov said. “We just use the material that we already have to make the diagnosis.”

As of Oct. 1, UPMC is using the test as an alternative to diagnostic surgery, making it the first academic in the country to do so.