These New Tests Aim to Find Cancer Before It's Diagnosed

A new test is able to easily identify the unique DNA structure that cancer cells have. CI Photos/Shutterstock

Researchers in Australia have developed a simple 10-minute test they say can detect whether someone has cancer cells anywhere in the body.

They created the test after discovering that all cancers appear to have a unique DNA structure, which the test is able to identify. For the test, researchers add DNA to a solution of water containing gold nanoparticles. The gold nanoparticles turn the water a reddish-pink. If DNA from cancer cells are added, it binds to the nanoparticles and doesn't change the color of the solution. However, if healthy cells are added to the water, it changes to a blue shade.

“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," said study co-author Matt Trau, a professor of chemistry at the University of Queensland, in a statement.

“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.”

Writing in the journal Nature Communications, researchers described a series of successful tests on breast, prostate and colorectal cancers, as well as lymphoma. The researchers said the technology has shown to be up to 90 percent accurate in tests involving 200 human cancer samples and normal DNA.

Co-researcher Abu Sina told CNN that the findings represented a "significant discovery" that could be a "game changer" for detecting cancer.

"Cancer is a complicated disease, [and currently] every type has a different testing and screening system. In most cases, there is no general test to test their status," he said. "Now, people only go [to get checked out] if they have symptoms. We want [cancer screening] to be part of a regular checkup."

Blood test shows promise

multipipette blood samples in lab
The blood test searches samples for tiny pieces of DNA material shed by cancer cells. science photo/Shutterstock

Earlier in 2018, researchers said a blood test to detect eight types of cancer also showed promise. The experimental test, called CancerSEEK, was developed by a team at Johns Hopkins University. It focuses on detecting eight major cancers: lung, breast, colon, pancreas, liver, stomach, ovary and esophagus. The test looks for genetic mutations in genes and proteins that are typically linked with those cancers.

The researchers studied 1,005 people who had been diagnosed with those cancers. The blood test found signs of cancer in about 70 percent of them.

The test first looks for 16 genetic mutations found in bits of DNA that have been shed by cancerous cells. It also screens for eight proteins that are often found in increased amounts in people who have cancer.

Researchers are now doing trials with people who haven't been diagnosed with cancer. That will be the true test of its effectiveness. Then the goal will be to make the test affordable so that it can be given annually. That way people can be screened regularly and cancer can be caught early when it is most treatable.

"The goal is to look for as many cancer types as possible in one test, and to identify cancer as early as possible," lead researcher Nickolas Papadopoulos, a professor of oncology and pathology at Johns Hopkins, told the Los Angeles Times. “We know from the data that when you find cancer early, it is easier to kill it by surgery or chemotherapy.”

Papadopoulos told NPR that the research team hopes to make each test cost about $500, but ultimately whatever company licenses the patent from Johns Hopkins will set the price.

The study results were published in the journal Science.

Other tests in the works

These aren't the only tests researchers have been developing to detect cancer.

Still in its early stages, another blood test for the early detection of cancer also has delivered promising results, say researchers.

The test also searches blood samples for small bits of DNA, deposited by dying cancer cells into the bloodstream. In the study of 124 patients with advanced cancers, the test was able to detect at least one genetic change in 89 percent of the people who were studied.

The study results were presented at the June 2017 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting.

The test has been referred to as a "liquid biopsy," but it differs from those tests, which only study a small part of the genetic material of already-diagnosed patients. The goal in that case it to monitor the disease for treatment.

In this case, the test scans a broad area of the genome, resulting in about 100 times more data than other sequencing approaches, according to the researchers. The test scans blood samples for mutations in 508 genes, with each region of the genome sequenced or "read" 60,000 times.

And although in this early stage, the test scanned blood samples for DNA in people already diagnosed with cancer, the researchers hope to develop a test for people who have no symptoms and have not been diagnosed with the disease.

"Our findings show that high-intensity circulating tumor DNA sequencing is possible and may provide invaluable information for clinical decision-making, potentially without any need for tumor tissue samples," lead study author Dr. Pedram Razavi of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, said in a statement. "This study is also an important step in the process of developing blood tests for early detection of cancer."

The test was funded in part by Grail, a startup that has been focusing on early-detection tests versus cancer "cures." According to Reuters, the company has raised $900 million in financing.

“We continue to see promising reports about possible uses of circulating tumor DNA analysis," said American Society of Clinical Oncology's John Heymach, M.D, Ph.D. "While this approach has a ways to go before it becomes a proven technology for early cancer detection, this research is an important step in that direction.”