Cancers aren't so straightforward to diagnose. Different cancers have very different signatures and use different types of screenings to detect. Scientists have been unable to identify a simple signature that was common to all cancers, but this new technology seems promising.
One of the researchers, Dr. Abu Sina, said that it was difficult to find a simple signature that was distinct from healthy cells and found in all cancerous cells. He told the Queensland University News: “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. 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."
The team noted that in healthy cells, these groups are spread out across the genome - the complete set of genes or genetic material present in a cell or organism - but the genomes only contained clusters of methyl groups. One of the researchers, Professor Matt Trau, tested the clusters of methyl groups in a solution and found they could be separated from the cells by sticking to solid surfaces like gold.
He said: “We designed a simple test using gold nanoparticles that instantly change color to determine if the 3D nanostructures of cancer DNA are present.” In addition, from the test, researchers found that the cancer cells released their DNA into blood plasma when they died, “So we were very excited about an easy way of catching these circulating free cancer DNA signatures in blood,” Trau said.
This vital breakthrough led to the creation of an inexpensive, portable detection device that could be used as a diagnostic tool, and may possibly be used as an app on a smart device. According to the University, this new technology has proved to be up to 90% accurate in tests of 200 human cancer samples and normal DNA. The research was supported by a grant from the National Breast Cancer Foundation and published in Nature Communications on December 3, 2018.
According to Trau: “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.”
The researchers hope that this test will allow cancer screenings to be part of a routine checkup. Screening for cancers frequently will enable them to be caught much earlier. Consequently, early cancer detection will save lives. Should the cancer test continue to be successful in trials, this new technology could be instrumental in offering inexpensive cancer screenings via smart devices in rural and under medical serviced parts of the world.