While a definitive cure for cancer, or even certain types of cancer, remains elusive, there has been significant progress in the effectiveness of different treatments. However, the key is still, and is likely to remain for the foreseeable future, catching cancer at an early stage. All too often, delays in cancer sufferers going to a doctor, or doctors not ordering a biopsy or blood test quickly enough, prove fatal. Screening is only done when there are already symptoms, at which point it is often too late to effectively combat the disease.
The key to catching as many cancers as early as possible is a quick, easy, affordable and reliable test able to detect even small concentrations of cancer cells anywhere in the body. And that is exactly what Australian researchers have achieved according to a recently published study.
The researchers, a team from the University of Queensland, discovered that cancer DNA forms a specific structure when placed in water. That led them to developing a test to detect that DNA structure if present. It takes 10 minutes and the hope is it will help detect cancer far more quickly and cheaply than current methods. The hope is that their test can mean cancer screening becomes part of general health check-ups.
One of the major hurdles that doctors face when it comes to screening is that the methods commonly used are different for every different type of cancer. A lot of research has been going into finding a one-stop-shop screening method that can detect cancer whatever type it might be and wherever it is located in the body.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have this year developed a blood test called CancerSEEK that can detect eight common kinds of cancer. But the University of Queensland’s test would, if clinical trials confirm the early promise it has demonstrated, take things a step further and screen for any kind of cancer.
How exactly does it work? It turns out that cancerous DNA molecules from any kind of human tissue, including blood, have a noticeably different 3D nanostructure to normal DNA. The DNA of cancerous cells has a different distribution of molecules known as methyl groups. The test detects this altered patterning when placed in a solution such as water. The study’s findings explained:
“Using … a high-resolution microscope, we saw that cancerous DNA fragments folded into three-dimensional structures in water. These were different to what we saw with normal tissue DNA in the water”.
The test involves the use of gold particles which bind with cancerous DNA in a way that affects the “molecular behaviour in way that causes visible colour changes”.
Early tests have been carried out on 200 tissue and blood samples showed 90% accuracy in the detection of a range of cancers. The team seeing no reason why it wouldn’t work in exactly the same way to detect other forms of the disease. The key strength of the test is that it requires almost no equipment, is fast, cheap and will in theory work for all cancer types. The team’s next step is to move to clinical trials.