A recent study carried out by researchers from the University of Copenhagen has developed a new method that may have the potential to diagnose many different types of cancers early on. The new process involves taking a blood sample from a patient and then testing the sample for cancer using a protein that can attach to cancer cells. For more information, you can view the source article here, at the University of Copenhagen’s website. You can also view the original study in Nature Communications by clicking here.
How the Test Works
The recently developed test uses a protein produced by malaria parasites called VAR2CSA that can stick to cancer cells and retrieve them from the blood. Cells from cancer tumours can migrate through the patient’s tissue and into their bloodstream. Once in the blood, they are called ‘circulating tumour cells’. Based on this, a blood sample taken from a patient can be tested for cancer cells to help determine if the patient has a tumour.
The protein is very sensitive to cancer cells, and so is thought to be able to pick them up in larger numbers than some other existing methods. An experiment done by the researchers found that when ten cancer cells were added to a sample of blood (5mm), the protein was able to retrieve nine of them. This high level of retrieval is important because the more sensitive a test is to cancer cells the more likely it is to be able to catch cancer at an early stage, leading to better patient outcomes.
Furthermore, this new method is also believed to be widely applicable. The malaria protein is able to bind to a type of sugar molecule that is present on over 95% of cancer cell types, so, the researchers believe, the test may be able to detect all those forms of cancer.
Potential Future Use
According to the source article, the research team are hopeful that their discovery could eventually be used to improve patient diagnosis and care. Doctors may one day be able to use this method as a diagnostic tool for patients who are at high risk of developing cancer, and for patients who have vague symptoms and need further testing. According to Professor Salanti, the test may even be able to indicate what stage a cancer is at based on the number of circulating tumour cells. However, he says, this might not be possible and much more research is needed before scientists properly understand the relationship between the test results and tumour stage.
In addition, Postdoc Mette Ørskov Agerbæk, who was an author of the study, says that in the future using this test to count the number of tumour cells in a sample may be used to inform a patient’s prognosis, and for a doctor to decide how best to treat the patient. For example, if the treatment a patient is currently undergoing doesn’t seem to be affecting the level of circulating cancer cells, the doctor may decide to change the treatment.
It is important to bear in mind that research into this method of testing is still at an early phase of research, and there are many stages to go through it could become widely available. However, so far, the results appear to be encouraging.