Cancer researchers at the University of Queensland have developed a simple 10-minute blood test that can be used to detect cancer. Once released, patients across the globe could find out whether they have cancer in a matter of minutes.

About the Test

Drs. Abu Sina and Laura Carrascosa and Professor Matt Trau developed the test after discovering a pattern in methyl groups (a type of molecule) unique to cancer. “In healthy cells, these methyl groups are spread out across the genome, but the genomes of cancer cells are essentially barren except for intense clusters of methyl groups at very specific locations,” said Dr. Sina.

When cancer cells die, they release their DNA into the bloodstream. These methyl group clusters are released into the bloodstream as well, essentially modifying the natural makeup of a person’s blood. “We designed a simple test using gold nanoparticles that instantly change color to determine if the 3D nanostructures of cancer DNA are present,” said Professor Trau.

The 10-minute test identifies these methyl groups using a solution that forces DNA fragments of the methyl groups into 3D nanostructures. The nanostructures are then attracted to solid surfaces, including the gold used by the test. The new test quickly identifies and confirms the presence of cancerous cells with a simple color change.

This new universal cancer test will let medical professionals know there are cancer cells present somewhere in the body. From there, doctors and oncologists can run systematic tests to narrow down the location of and determine the type of cancer.

New Test is Faster Than Biopsy Results

Biopsies are the most definitive cancer diagnostic test currently used but have some notable disadvantages. First, biopsies require direct access to the cancer cells from a tumor or a potentially cancerous mass. Sample cells need to be collected from these masses and sent to a laboratory for review. Depending on their location, collecting these cells can be a highly invasive procedure.

For example, when surgeons suspect mesothelioma, they open the chest to access the lungs, abdomen or heart to collect cells from the tumor. They then have to pause mid-operation to send the collected cells to a laboratory. The surgical team then waits for the lab tech to analyze the cells and phone back with their educated decision. Based on the results of the lab tech’s findings, the lead surgeon then has to make a split-second decision on how to proceed.

These rapid operations are further complicated when we consider how cancer cells mutate. Cancer changes cells over time, meaning the mutation isn’t always apparent, as cells collected for biopsy can be in many stages of transformation. Even when lab techs recognize abnormal cells, they can’t always confirm the cancer type or stage, especially in a high-pressure setting. In this scenario, the surgeon with a potential mesothelioma patient in front of them still needs to decide how to move forward.

Not all biopsy collections are this high-pressure—but it does always take time. Even in a traditional biopsy setting, patients and doctors have to wait hours or even days while the laboratory receives, reviews, and then reports on the biopsy findings. Patients are stuck in a high-stress, emotional state of unknowing until the biopsy results come back.

Biopsies Require Correct Location for Sampling

Another major disadvantage of biopsies is that the right cells need to be collected. If a collected sample doesn’t contain cancer cells, the lab will be inconclusive or give a false negative. This means that doctors not only need to suspect cancer but suspect cancer in the exact location that it’s present, leaving a huge margin of error for misdiagnosis.

By contrast, the new blood test would allow doctors to know whether cancer is present right from the initial consultation. At that point, the doctor and patient could then work together to narrow down the location of the tumor. Biopsies would still be used for further confirmation and analysis, but only after it’s already known that cancer is present. No time would be wasted, and patients could receive tests and subsequent treatment faster and earlier than ever.

Universal Cancer Tests and Mesothelioma

A test like this could also be a game-changer in the fight against mesothelioma, as early detection is difficult yet definitively linked to better patient prognosis. Mesothelioma is difficult to diagnose, as early-stage symptoms are very similar to several more common, non-cancerous conditions.

Having a simple test that confirms or denies the presence of cancer cells will be a momentous step forward in diagnosing cancers, including mesothelioma, much faster.

While the 10-minute test hasn’t been tested with mesothelioma yet, the initial research is very promising. The test was able to detect the presence of cancer in up to 90% of the samples used. Now that the test has had initial success, the trio at Queensland is currently working to refine the technology and ultimately license it for release with a commercial company.

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Sources
  1. The University of Queensland, “Nano-signature discovery could revolutionise cancer diagnosis,” Retrieved from
    https://www.uq.edu.au/news/article/2018/12/nano-signature-discovery-could-revolutionise-cancer-diagnosis Accessed on January 20, 2019.
  2. Forbes, “New Universal Cancer Tests Takes Only Ten Minutes. The Secret Ingredient? Gold.” Retrieved from
    https://www.forbes.com/sites/victoriaforster/2018/12/04/new-universal-cancer-test-takes-only-ten-minutes-the-secret-ingredient-gold/#3276c26f4794 Accessed on January 20, 2019.
  3. American Cancer Society, “Test for Malignant Mesothelioma,” Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/malignant-mesothelioma/detection-diagnosis-staging/how-diagnosed.html Accessed on January 20, 2019.
  4. Cancer Research UK, “How cancer starts,” Retrieved from https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/what-is-cancer/how-cancer-starts Accessed on January 20, 2019.

Last modified: January 29, 2019