Researchers from the University of Queensland have developed a universal cancer test that can detect cancerous cells in the patient’s bloodstream.
A report in The Guardian explained the inexpensive procedure as involving a cheap and simple test using a colour-changing fluid to show the presence of these cells in the body within ten minutes, making it a radical new approach to detect cancer using simple procedures.
According to Laura Carrascosa, a researcher at the University of Queensland, the main advantage of the technique, which has a sensitivity of about 90 per cent (would detect 90 in 100 cases of cancer), is that it is inexpensive and simple.
"Our technique could be a screening tool to inform clinicians that a patient may have a cancer, but they would require subsequent tests with other techniques to identify the cancer type and stage." - Laura Carrascosa
The initial discovery that aided this test was the way in which cancer DNA and normal DNA stick to metal surfaces vary significantly.
Healthy cells pattern their DNA with molecules called methyl groups. They work like volume controls by silencing genes that are not needed and instigating those which are. This patterning is not possible in cancerous cells, wherein only genes that help the cancer grow are turned on.
While the DNA inside normal cells has methyl groups dotted all over it, the DNA inside cancer cells is largely bare, with methyl groups found only in small clusters at specific locations.
Sharing their discovery in the journal Nature Communications, the researchers described numerous tests that confirmed the telltale pattern of methyl groups in breast, prostate and colorectal cancer as well as lymphoma. They then showed that the patterns had a dramatic impact on the DNA’s chemistry, making normal and cancer DNA behave very differently in water.
After a series of experiments, the scientists arrived at the new test for cancer. The suspect DNA is added to water containing tiny gold nanoparticles. Though made of gold, the particles turn the water pink.
If DNA from cancer cells is then added, it sticks to the nanoparticles in such a way that the water retains its original colour. But if DNA from healthy cells is added, the DNA binds to the particles differently, and turns the water blue.
The test, led by Matt Trau, has been run on 200 human cancer samples and healthy DNA already, making it a reliable marker for cancer universally and an accessible technology, replacing the complicated lab-based equipment like DNA sequencing.
The scientists are now working towards clinical trials with patients that have a broader range of cancer types than they have tested so far.
“This test could be done in combination with other simple tests, and become a powerful diagnostic tool that could not just say that you have cancer, but also the type and stage,” said Carrascosa.
(With inputs from The Guardian)
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