Cancer DNA signature will revolutionize point-of-care diagnostics

Researchers at the University of Queensland have developed a potentially game-changing new technology that could revolutionize cancer point-of-care (POC) diagnostics.

Cancer cell - lightspring on shutterstock

LightSpring | Shutterstock

The new method will enable quick and easy detection of any cancer from any type of body tissue such as blood or biopsy.

The researchers developed the technology after discovering a unique nanoscale DNA signature that seems to be common to all types of cancer.

As reported in the journal Nature Communications, the study provides novel insights into how epigenetic reprogramming in cancer mediates properties of DNA and could lead to a completely new way of carrying out POC diagnostics.

Because cancer is an extremely complicated and variable disease, it has been difficult to find a simple signature common to all cancers, yet distinct from healthy cells.”

Abu Sina, Study Author

For the study, the researchers focused on circulating free DNA (the DNA that circulates when cells die and release their cargo) and examined patterns of methyl groups (epigenetic patterns) found on the DNA of both cancer cells and healthy cells.

These patterns are key to cell function because they determine whether genes are activated or deactivated at any given time. In healthy cells, the methyl groups are distributed throughout the genome.

However, the current study found that on the cancer cell genome, the methyl groups instead form intense clusters at very specific sites.

This unique signature, which the authors are calling the cancer methylscape, was found in every type of breast cancer that was tested, as well as in prostate cancer, lymph, ma and colorectal cancer.

Virtually every piece of cancerous DNA we examined had this highly predictable pattern. It seems to be a general feature for all cancer. It's a startling discovery."

Matt Trau, Co-author

Furthermore, the team also found that when the intense methyl group clusters are placed in solution, they cause fragments of cancer DNA to form 3D nanostructures that adhere to gold.

They, therefore, decided to develop an assay, which uses gold nanoparticles that immediately change color when these nanostructures are present.

"This happens in one drop of fluid. You can detect it by eye, it's as simple as that," says Trau.

Sina adds: “This new discovery could be a game-changer in the field of point of care cancer diagnostics.”

Although the technique is not yet perfect, it represents a promising start and will only improve with time, concludes the team.

Sally Robertson

Written by

Sally Robertson

Sally graduated from Greenwich University with a first-class honours degree in Biomedical Science. After five years working in the scientific publishing sector, Sally developed an interest in medical journalism and copywriting and went on to pursue this on a freelance basis. In her spare time Sally enjoys cross-country biking and walking, tennis and crosswords.

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