Medical science has progressed a lot in recent years. A recent breakthrough has made the diagnosis of cancer possible through a simple blood test. It is notable that the test can be performed in under ten minutes.The blood test detects the floating pieces of DNA which could only have originated in cancerous tumors.
Cancer treatments are effective if they are administered before things get worse. This test can enable the early detection and hence control of cancer even before traditional symptoms appear.
Mr. Matt Trau, a professor at the University of Queensland, Brisbane said: “Virtually every piece of cancerous DNA we examined had this highly predictable pattern.” He added, “it may be the “holy grail” of cancer diagnostics.” Mr. Trau also serves as the Deputy Director and is the co-founder of the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology.
Prior to this MRI was the most used method of cancer detection. Detection through MRI was prone to inaccuracies and small tumors could be overlooked. When a tumor shows up in MRI it is often too late to start its treatment.
As described by Nature Communications the test depends upon the differences between the DNA contained within the cancerous and healthy cells. The test makes use of a process called epigenetics where a methyl group is attached to the DNA. The methyl group acts as a chemical tag for easy detection.
This DNA tagging allows genes to be switched ‘on’ and ‘off’. Trau explained: “It seems to be a general feature for all cancer. It’s a startling discovery.” The fact that it can diagnose cancer with 90% accuracy is perhaps even more surprising.
90% of the cancer cases reported, result in deaths as they are reported too late. A tissue biopsy can utilize the same technique.
Mr. Trau added, “The test to detect cancerous cells can be performed in 10 minutes.” This technology could save hundreds of lives annually through timely detection. Co-author of the research paper Dr. Abu Sina said: “Because cancer is an extremely complicated and variable disease, it has been difficult to find a simple signature common to all cancers, yet distinct from healthy cells.”
One of the other researchers from the University of Queensland Dr. Laura Carrascosa said: “There’s been a big hunt to find whether there is some distinct DNA signature that is just in cancer and not in the rest of the body.”
The study found out that the genome found in the cancer cells can create clusters of methyl group randomly as opposed to the even spread in the normal cells. These unique patterns control which genes are turned on and off at any given time and “decorate the DNA.”
The researchers have coined a new word for the distinct decoration of the DNA, “methylscape”. The methylscape was detected in every type of bowel, prostate, and breast cancer case that they studied.
The methylscape also caused the DNA pieces to fold up into three-dimensional nanostructures that have an affinity for gold when placed in a solution. A test designed on this basis was carried out and the gold nanoparticles used in the test changed color if the nanostructures of cancer DNA were present.
Trau said: “This happens in one drop of fluid. You can detect it by eye, it’s as simple as that.” This discovery is of pivotal importance as inexpensive solutions for the detection can be made possible because of it. In the future, it could enable the detection through a smartphone.
The outcome was tested on 200 different samples from cancer affected patients and the results were consistent. Dr. Abu Sina said: “It works for tissue-derived genomic DNA and blood-derived circulating free DNA. This new discovery could be a game-changer in the field of point of care cancer diagnostics.”
The research is still in its prime and the experts are of the opinion that it could take some years before it can reach clinics.
Dr. Trau added: “We certainly don’t know yet whether it’s the Holy Grail or not for all cancer diagnostics. But it looks really interesting as an incredibly simple universal marker of cancer, and as a very accessible and inexpensive technology that does not require complicated lab-based equipment like DNA sequencing.”
In the future, there is hope that this test would be performed alongside other usual blood tests. Being able to test the blood for cancer through a smartphone sounds promising. This could prove to be the much push needed in controlling and eventually eradicating cancer.