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‘Smoke detector’ test developed to predict the onset of cancer

ByLouise Munro

Sep 13, 2016

A blood test has been developed by researchers at Swansea University which could potentially save millions of lives by detecting cancer before the onset of symptoms.

Oesophageal cancer was selected for the trial due to its poor survival rates; on average a patient survives just 12 months and only 15 per cent live for five years. The new test was developed over four years and involved more than 300 individuals, including healthy controls, pre-cancer patients and patients with oesophageal cancer.

The test successfully distinguished between all three groups by detecting changes in surface proteins of red blood cells. These mutated blood cells are simply collateral damage, produced in circulating blood cells as a by-product of the developing cancer, with no role in disease. They are detectable using standard equipment found in any pathology lab. Therefore, this test acts as a simple, non-invasive and inexpensive monitoring method.

The sugary surface proteins should enable cell recognition proteins to attach to the cell like Velcro; but the ‘velcro’ is missing in the mutated cells so proteins cannot bind. This means that the cells cannot react when samples are stained with fluorescent antibodies. This forms the basis for determining the mutant cell frequency, which in healthy people averages 5 per million. This figure rises more than 10 fold in cancer patients. Cancer Research UK’s Senior Science Information Officer has described the use of monitoring background DNA damage as exciting, with the potential to diagnose many oesophageal cancers earlier. 

Revealed at the British Science Festival in Swansea, the test has been likened to a smoke detector as it identifies the collateral damage of cancer rather than its direct presence; just as a smoke detector detects the by-product of fire, smoke.  There are approximately 7000 cases of oesophageal cancer per year in the UK, and it is the 4th most common cancer death for men. The fingerpick test is raising hopes for earlier detection and could be used as a screening tool for people who are considered at-risk. Even if those at risk are asymptomatic, earlier action to combat the disease, such as the removal of pre-cancerous cells. can be taken.

If the test continues to deliver promising results it could save millions of lives, as early diagnosis is key to survival rates. Larger scale studies are being performed to confirm the results and show clinical reliability. The Swansea team are also looking at whether the test applies to pancreatic cancer, which is similarly hard to treat. The team lead has said it would be “hard to imagine it would not.”

Simultaneously, a team from Cancer Research UK Cambridge has been working on an alternative diagnostic technique for oesophageal cancer involving a light-emitting dye which preferentially coats healthy cells to emit an infrared light, leaving cancerous cells to appear dark. The dye would be sprayed on oesophageal tissue samples taken from patients to diagnose but also to monitor at risk patients. Both tests require further study but new ways to detect cancer easily, particularly those that are hard to treat, are vital to improve survival.

Image: Destroyer of furries

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