A Challenge for Science: Finding a Universal Cancer Biomarker

According to a publication from Live Science, researchers from around the world are working on a way to identify cancer in the body more efficiently and reliably. One way scientists hope to achieve this is by identifying certain cancer “biomarkers,” that would suggest the presence of cancer cells somewhere in the body, no matter the type or where they were occurring.

One such potential biomarker is DNA. Some scientists believe they’ve found a way to differentiate DNA from cancerous tissue from healthy DNA surrounding it.

Research Worth its Weight in Gold

A paper published in last December’s Nature Communications found that DNA from cancer cells in a blood sample would tightly adhere to gold nanoparticles they were introduced to the blood. Healthy DNA does not bind to the gold particles, because it tends to bunch up in a different shape. In the study, the researchers claimed they were able to successfully detect 90% of cancers in the trial within just 10 minutes time.

Professor Matt Trau, with the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at the University of Queensland, led the study. Though the research seems promising, none of the cancers successfully detected in the experiment were particularly rare or difficult to detect. While still useful, scientists don’t generally need more ways of diagnosing the most common cancers. It’s the rare or otherwise hard-to-detect cancers that scientists are fighting to find ways to identify.

Robert Kovelman, a senior director at Biological Dynamics, attended the talk where the findings were presented. He noted that the science still seems to be “in its early days“, and acknowledged that the true value of the technology would be in how it was used.

Professor Trau and his team are now working to identify other potential biomarkers that could indicate the presence of cancer. Trau believes that “no marker is perfect,“ meaning every potential biomarker has uncertainty in its application. As such, it’s best practice to have several different biomarkers to have available to look for.

Because “cancer“ comprises hundreds of individual variants that are highly individualized in their expression, finding a universal biomarker for cancer is a monumental challenge. Trau and his team’s research likely represents an early step in a prolonged fight to find better ways of diagnosing and treating cancer patients. Hopefully, new groups of scientists will use the foundations of Trau’s study to launch new studies of their own.


People often speak of finding a “cure for cancer.” Why might it be impractical to think in those terms? Share your thoughts with Patient Worthy!

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