10 minute cancer test on the horizon

Grant Boone
December 5, 2018

The test hinges on a unique DNA signature that appears to be found in all cancers, discovered by a team of scientists at the University of Queensland's Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN).

The tiny molecules that decorate DNA, called methyl groups, are altered dramatically by cancer.

Trials were conducted on 200 samples including breast, lymphoma, prostate and colorectal, and the results had 90 percent accuracy of detecting cancer. Matt Trau, one of the researchers, said that it was hard to find a "simple marker" that could differentiate between cancer cells and healthy cells.

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.

One possibility, still in development, is a liquid biopsy, testing for circulating cancer DNA in the blood.

"Our technique could be a screening tool to inform clinicians that a patient may have cancer, but they would require subsequent tests with other techniques to identify the cancer type and stage", Carrascosa said.

So, rather than focus on the methylation itself, the researchers in the new study looked at what the methylation did to the overall structure and chemical properties of the cancer DNA.

Corresponding author Professor Matt Trau, from the University of Queensland, Brisbane, in Australia, reckons it may be the "holy grail" of cancer diagnostics. They studied patterns of cancerous DNA and healthy DNA, finding that the latter is sticky against metal surfaces.

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Taking advantage of this, the researchers designed a test that uses gold nanoparticles.

"This is a huge discovery that no-one has grasped before", said Laura Carrascosa, a researcher at the University of Queensland.

It spots tiny amounts of DNA floating through vessels that could only have come from tumors and not from healthy cells.

"But it looks really interesting as an incredibly simple universal marker of cancer, and as a very accessible and low-cost technology that does not require complicated lab-based equipment like DNA sequencing".

The technique can also be used on tissue biopsies.

Cancer is an extremely complicated and variable disease and different types of cancer have different signatures. The gold particles change color depending on whether or not cancer DNA is present. "This could be done in conjunction with other tests and the combined information may give us a lot of ideas of where the cancer is and the stage".

It turns out these structures stick to gold, so when cancerous DNA is put into a solution with gold nanoparticles, it attaches to them and instantly changes the colour of solution. However if the water changes to blue, the test suggest you're cancer free.

It is hoped that the new test will eventually be performed at the same time as routine blood tests, such as a cholesterol check - or even using a mobile phone app. "Further clinical studies are required to evaluate the full clinic potential of the method".

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