By Elton Gomes
Researchers have developed a quick test that can detect all types of cancer from blood or biopsy tissues within minutes.
The test was developed by Dr Abu Sina, Dr Laura Carrascosa, and Professor Matt Trau from the University of Queensland, Australia. They discovered a unique DNA nanostructure that appears to be common to all cancers. The study has been published in Nature Communications.
The test was developed after the researchers found that cancer forms a unique DNA structure when placed in water.
What did the researchers discover?
Cancer is an extremely complicated and variable disease, and different types of cancer have different signatures. Dr Sina said that it had been difficult to find a simple signature that was different from healthy cells and common to all cancers.
“This unique nano-scaled DNA signature appeared in every type of breast cancer we examined, and in other forms of cancer including prostate, colorectal and lymphoma,” Dr Sina said in a statement.
He added, “The levels and patterns of tiny molecules called methyl groups that decorate DNA are altered dramatically by cancer – these methyl groups are key for cells to control which genes are turned on and off.”
Dr Carrascosa said the researchers took a holistic approach and developed a tool that could look at these pattern changes at the whole genome level within minutes.
“In healthy cells, these methyl groups are spread out across the genome, but the genomes of cancer cells are essentially barren except for intense clusters of methyl groups at very specific locations,” Dr Carrascosa said in the statement.
Professor Trau then said the team discovered that intense clusters of methyl groups placed in a solution caused cancer DNA fragments to fold into unique three-dimensional nanostructures that could easily be separated by sticking to solid surfaces, such as gold.
How is the test conducted?
The suspect DNA is added to water that contains tiny gold nanoparticles. These nanoparticles make the water turn pink. If DNA from cancer cells is added, it sticks to the nanoparticles in such a way that the water retains its original colour. However, if DNA from healthy cells is added, it combines with the particles differently, and turns the water blue.
How does it work?
The test works by identifying the presence of a unique DNA structure. The discovery can help in detecting cancer in humans far earlier than current methods.
“Discovering that cancerous DNA molecules formed entirely different 3D nanostructures from normal circulating DNA was a breakthrough that has enabled an entirely new approach to detect cancer non-invasively in any tissue type including blood,” Professor Trau said in the statement.
He said further, “This led to the creation of inexpensive and portable detection devices that could eventually be used as a diagnostic tool, possibly with a mobile phone.”
Dr Sina said the findings represented a “significant discovery” that could be a “game changer” for cancer detection.
How will it help cancer patients?
The new technology has proved to be up to 90 per cent accurate in tests involving 200 human cancer samples and normal DNA.
“We certainly don’t know yet whether it’s the holy grail for all cancer diagnostics, but it looks really interesting as an incredibly simple universal marker of cancer, and as an accessible and inexpensive technology that doesn’t require complicated lab-based equipment like DNA sequencing,” Professor Trau said in the statement.
To test for cancer today, doctors have to collect a tissue for biopsy from a patient’s suspected tumour. The procedure is invasive and relies on the patient noticing a lump, or reporting symptoms that are recognised as potential signs of cancer. A less invasive test that has the potential to spot cancer earlier could change the way how patients are screened for the disease.
Tests in the lab showed that the scientists were able to distinguish normal DNA from cancer DNA by only looking for a colour change in the gold nanoparticle solution. The difference was visible to the naked eye within a few minutes.
“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,” Dr Carrascosa said, Guardian reported.
Who are the researchers?
Professor Matt Trau is currently a professor of chemistry at the University of Queensland, and is also the deputy director and co-founder of the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN).
After graduating from the University of Sydney (B.Sc. Hons. I, University Medal) and the University of Melbourne (Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry, 1993), he has held positions in industry and academia across the globe. Some of these positions include a Fulbright Research Fellowship at Princeton University, USA, and a research scientist at Dow Chemical and ICI Pty Ltd.
In the past five years, Trau has been a consultant for several national and international companies such as Merck, Digene, Beckman Coulter, Panbio, and A.I. Scientific. He is also the founder and Director of Nanomics BioSystems Pty Ltd (a spinoff company from his laboratory).
Laura Garcia Carrascosa’s LinkedIn profile says she’s currently a research development manager at the University of Queensland. In her role at the University of Queensland, Carrascosa provides support to researchers with their funding applications. She plays a key role in connecting and engaging key stakeholders including clinicians, researchers, consumers, and executive directors. She was previously a research engagement officer at Mater Health Services, South Brisbane.
Carrascosa has also worked as a postdoctoral research fellow at the AIBN, and the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, Barcelona, Spain.
Dr Abu Sina is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the AIBN, the University of Queensland.
Sina obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Queensland in 2017. He also has a joint teaching position as an assistant professor at the department of biochemistry and molecular biology, Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Bangladesh.
Before joining the academia, he has held positions in multinational companies such as Berger Paints and Beximco Limited. In his career, Sina already has a high-impact track record with 16 publications, including 14 peer-reviewed articles and 2 book chapters.
Other efforts to treat cancer
Scientists around the world have been working on ways to identify cancer earlier, because early detection can help improve the success rate of cancer treatment and surgery.
As per a January 2018 report, a test known as Liquid Biopsy test identified the tumour traces released in a cancer patient’s blood stream through a simple DNA blood test.
The method has been touted as a cost-effective method since it only involves a simple blood test. The method is also useful in monitoring the disease for any signs of remission post-surgery or other treatments.
The Liquid Biopsy test was developed by Bengaluru-based Strand Life Sciences in collaboration with the Mazumdar Shaw Center for Translational Research (MSCTR), an organisation that promotes research on affordable healthcare. Both teams worked together to develop these advanced tests, which were validated by clinicians at the Mazumdar Shaw Medical Center (MSMC).
The test known as “STRAND LB” will precisely figure the presence of tumours, cancer recurrence, and response to therapy at an early stage, with minimal discomfort to the patient.
Earlier, in June 2017, a group of Indian scientists found a new drug that effectively kills leukemic cancer cells. Code-named 5g, the new drug can reportedly kill over 70 per cent blood cancer cells in a petri dish within 48 hours at an extremely low concentration. Moreover, the drug does not affect healthy blood cells – this indicates that it is toxic only for cancer cells.
The new compound has been found to be most effective in leukemic cells, while other cancer cell lines like colorectal and cervical showed fewer effects.
The images in this article were updated on December 10, 2018.
All images in this article are courtesy of Dr Abu Sina, and have been reproduced with permission from him and the University of Queensland.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius.