Early cancer diagnoses could increase thanks to sophisticated new test

Cancer research has traditionally focused on the early warning signs of cancer, called biomarkers, which can alert doctors to the presence of the disease before patients even have symptoms. For years, scientists have attempted to spot these biomarkers increasingly early but their progress has been slow. Now a new study from Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute suggests that the key to better diagnosis will be a different type of testing altogether.

The difficulty with searching for specific biomarkers is that they may only be present in amounts too small to see at the early stages of disease. There may also be biomarkers indicating disease that scientists are unaware of. And even when they are spotted, it’s hard to give patients a prognosis as everybody’s immune system reacts differently to cancer.

In the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science this week, lead author of the study Phillip Stafford describes his team’s technique for early disease detection, called immunosignaturing. Instead of examining a blood sample in search of biomarkers, this involves looking at all the antibodies circulating in the blood at any one time.

A drop of blood is added to a specially-designed glass slide on which thousands of random sequence peptides, (naturally occurring biological molecules) are imprinted. The blood binds with some of the individual peptides, providing a highly individual signature of immune activity. Stafford and his colleagues then ‘taught’ their system to recognise immunosignatures from patients both with and without cancer and tested its ability to predict disease in 120 samples. It had a 95% success rate.

With cancer causing over 150,000 deaths a year in the UK and millions more worldwide, a more effective way to spot the disease before it catches hold can only be a good thing for survival rates and treatment options in future. What’s more, because this new testing technique isn’t looking for specific biomarkers, it could be used to spot signs of other life-threatening illnesses, too. The research team’s next step is to develop a microchip imprinted with up to 100,000 peptides for even more individualised results.

Image via Umberto Salvagnin’s Flickr.

Diane Shipley