Australian researchers discover unique cancer biomarker

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The result was a simple and fast test that could detect cancer in just 10 minutes, according to the study, published today (Dec. 4) in the journal Nature Communications.

Blood tests are sometimes ordered to help doctors diagnose cancer, but different ones are required depending on the type suspected.

The new method from the University of Queensland looks for differences in the genetic code of cancerous and healthy cells.

Almost every cell in a person's body has the same DNA, but studies have found that cancer's progression causes this DNA to undergo considerable reprogramming.

The test, which is still in its early stages as the team search for a commercial partner, has so far been trialled on 200 tissue samples and has detected cancer with up to 90 per cent accuracy.

"We designed a simple test using gold nanoparticles that instantly change color to determine if the 3D nanostructures of cancer DNA are present", said Matt Trau, a professor of chemistry at the University of Queensland and deputy director and co-founder of the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology.

"You can compare that with some of our frontline cancer detection techniques", he said.

"Virtually every piece of cancerous DNA we examined had this highly predictable pattern", Professor Trau said.

Helpfully, these molecule clusters fold up into structures which like to stick to gold so can be tested for by using the precious metal. The researchers found the signature in multiple types of breast cancer as well as in prostate and colorectal cancer, and lymphoma.

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The quick and simple test sees DNA extracted from a tissue sample before it is mixed with water, to which gold nanoparticles are added. He said, "We never thought this would be possible, because cancer is so complicated".

The scientists are now working towards clinical trials with patients who have a broader range of cancer types than they have tested so far.

The position of these molecules forms part of the epigenome - a set of instructions that controls how genes are expressed.

Since cancer DNA has higher affinity to gold, it provides a higher relative electrochemical current signal in comparison to normal DNA.

The team noticed that in cancer cells, methyl groups were clustered at certain positions on the genome - a stark contrast to healthy cells where the groups are dispersed throughout.

"A major advantage of this technique is that it is very cheap and extremely simple to do, so it could be adopted in the clinic quite easily", said Laura Carrascosa, a researcher at the University of Queensland.

"That absolutely stunned us", Professor Trau said.

Trau added: "We certainly don't know yet whether it's the Holy Grail or not for all cancer diagnostics".

"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 affordable technology that doesn't require complicated lab-based equipment like DNA sequencing", Trau said in the press release.

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