A new approach to detect cancer could take just ten minutes, a mobile phone and may be substantially cheaper than currently available ‘liquid biopsy’ tests, according to a new study.
Researchers at the University of Queensland discovered a unique DNA structure, which appears to be present in all cancer cells they tested, including those from breast, prostate, colorectal and lymphoma but not healthy cells.
The research published today in the journal Nature Communications details a new test which rather than looking for specific types of cancer and particular DNA mutations, may eventually be able to give a quick ‘yes or no’ answer, indicating whether further detailed and expensive diagnostics are needed.
‘“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,” said Matt Trau, leader of the research and Professor of Chemistry at The University of Queensland and co-founder of the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology.
The researchers looked for tiny molecules called methyl groups, which are constantly added and removed to DNA by cellular machinery, acting as little beacons to switch genes on and off. Methyl groups are generally spread out across the whole genome, but cancer cells have intense clusters of methylation, which the team sought to detect.
They found that when they placed the DNA in a chemical solution, tightly-packed clusters of these methyl groups folded into particular nanostructures which then stuck to solid surfaces like gold, allowing them to be easily detected.
Methylation of DNA can be assessed across the whole genome by doing expensive sequencing to find out exactly how much methylation is present and precisely where, but this is the first such test to paint a simple overall yes or no picture of whether cancer is likely to be present using these methyl nanostructures.
“We designed a simple test using gold nanoparticles that instantly change color to determine if the 3D nanostructures of cancer DNA are present. “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,” said Trau.
Methylation of DNA and it’s relevance to diagnosing cancer is a hot topic of research at the moment, with a paper in the journal Nature last month showing that methylation analysis of cell-free DNA could be potentially used to detect cancer in people with early-stage disease.