UCLA researchers win NCI grants to advance liquid biopsy for early detection of cancer

Researchers from the UCLA Health Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center have received two grants totaling $9.1 million from the National Cancer Institute to advance liquid biopsy technologies for the early detection of cancer, which can significantly improve treatment outcomes and reduce the number of deaths caused by the disease.

A liquid biopsy is a promising non-invasive medical test using a small volume of blood that gives scientists insight into the genetic makeup of tumors. By analyzing these components, researchers can gain valuable information about the genetic mutations, alterations and other molecular changes associated with the presence of cancer.

With the support from the grants, we will be advancing current tests by creating comprehensive approaches that combines multi-modality information to detect liver, colorectal, liver, lung, and stomach cancer early."

Jasmine Zhou, lead principal investigator on the grants, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and scientist in the Jonsson Cancer Center

Developing a test for the early detection of liver cancer

For the first grant, the principal investigators Zhou, along with Dr. Steven-Huy Han, Dr. Samuel French and Dr. Vatche Agopian, all part of the Geffen School of Medicine and Jonsson Cancer Center, will develop and validate a method to integrate blood, imaging, and clinical data for the early detection of liver cancer. This liquid biopsy test could fill an urgent demand to benefit patients, who are at risk of developing liver cancer.

Liver cancer is a leading cause of cancer-related deaths. Despite progress in reducing cancer mortality overall, liver cancer rates are increasing due to factors like obesity and alcohol abuse.

The team previously developed a highly sensitive and cost-effective method using cell-free DNA methylome for cancer detection, and they successfully tested it on a group of patients with liver conditions. They plan to expand their studies, refine their methods, and collaborate with other institutions to create a comprehensive approach that combines genetic, imaging, and clinical information to detect liver cancer early.

"The ultimate goal is to contribute to reducing the high mortality associated with liver cancer," said Han.

Along with Zhou, Han and French, the UCLA team consists of Dr. Wenyuan Li and Weihua Zeng from pathology and lab medicine, Dr. Frank Alber from microbiology, immunology, and molecular genetics, Dr. Jihane Benhammou, Dr. Gina Choi, Dr. Mohamed El Kabany, Dr. Sammy Saab, Dr. Akshay Shetty, and Dr. Jasleen Singh from hepatology, Dr. Sarah Dry from pathology, Dr. Kevin King, Dr. David Lu, Dr. Steven Raman, Dr. Kyung Sung and Dr. Holden Wu from radiology.

Multi-cancer early detection using cell-free DNA methylome analysis

The second grant focuses on improving the early detection of various cancers using the cell-free DNA methylome to detect and locate colon, gastric, liver, and lung cancers.

The principal investigators, which include Jasmine Zhou, Wenyuan Li and Dr. Robert Bresalier from MD Anderson Cancer Center, have already obtained promising results in preliminary studies, but plan to enhance the performance of the technology by refining how they analyze the data and validate its effectiveness in multiple clinical groups.

Additionally, they will collaborate with an industry partner to optimize the technology for wider clinical use and implement it in a secure cloud computing platform for decentralized testing.

"If successful, this test will be transformative in fighting against these types of cancers," said Li.

The UCLA team also includes Han, Alber, Zeng, as well as Dr. Shuo Li from pathology and lab medicine, and Dr. Ashley Prosper from radiology.

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