A simple blood test has been developed that can diagnose cancer in just 10 minutes. It spots tiny amounts of DNA floating through vessels that could only have come from tumors – and not healthy cells.
The breakthrough could lead to much earlier detection and more chance of a cure – with treatment beginning even years before symptoms develop.
It is hoped it will eventually be performed at the same time as routine blood tests, such as a cholesterol check – even using a mobile phone app.
Corresponding author Professor Matt Trau, of the University of Queensland, Brisbane, said it may be the “Holy Grail” of cancer diagnostics.
“Virtually every piece of cancerous DNA we examined had this highly predictable pattern,” he said.
If you think of a cell as a hard-drive, then the new findings suggest the disease needs certain genetic programs, or “apps,” in order to run.
“It seems to be a general feature for all cancer. It’s a startling discovery,” Trau said. “The test to detect cancerous cells can be performed in 10 minutes.”
In experiments, it distinguished tumors from healthy cells with up to 90 percent accuracy. The technique can also be used on tissue biopsies.
Blood tests are sometimes ordered to help doctors diagnose cancer, but different ones are required depending on the type suspected.
And they are not definitive, but one step in the process.
An MRI scan is the most often used method, but it tends to miss small tumors – only working to confirm a diagnosis when it is often too late to start treatment.
About nine in 10 cancer deaths involve a diagnosis that came too late.
So the Australian team’s breakthrough paves the way to saving countless lives.
The test described in Nature Communications exploits the differences between the DNA in cancerous and healthy cells to allow for a quick, early diagnosis.
TRIP TO CHIROPRACTOR LED TO BRAIN CYST DISCOVERY, WOMAN SAYS
It is based on a process known as epigenetics – the attachment of a chemical tag known as a methyl group to DNA.
This alters how DNA can be read, switching genes on or off.
When placed in solution, those intense clusters of methyl groups also caused cancer DNA fragments to fold up into three-dimensional nanostructures that really like to stick to gold.
Taking advantage of this, the researchers designed a test which uses gold nanoparticles.
These instantly change color depending on whether or not the 3-D nanostructures of cancer DNA are present.
“This happens in one drop of fluid. You can detect it by eye, it’s as simple as that,” Trau said.