Qld researchers discover unique cancer biomarker

Thursday, 06 December, 2018

Qld researchers discover unique cancer biomarker

University of Queensland researchers have developed a test to detect cancer from blood or biopsy tissue.

Dr Abu Sina, Dr Laura Carrascosa and Professor Matt Trau from UQ have discovered a unique DNA nanostructure that appears to be common to all cancers.

“This unique nanoscaled DNA signature appeared in every type of breast cancer we examined, and in other forms of cancer including prostate, colorectal and lymphoma,” Dr Sina said.

“The levels and patterns of tiny molecules called methyl groups that decorate DNA are altered dramatically by cancer — these methyl groups are key for cells to control which genes are turned on and off.”

Dr Carrascosa said they took a holistic approach and developed a tool that could look at these pattern changes at the whole genome level within minutes.

“In healthy cells, these methyl groups are spread out across the genome, but the genomes of cancer cells are essentially barren except for intense clusters of methyl groups at very specific locations.”

Professor Trau said the team discovered that intense clusters of methyl groups placed in a solution caused cancer DNA fragments to fold into unique three-dimensional nanostructures that could easily be separated by sticking to solid surfaces such as gold.

“We designed a simple test using gold nanoparticles that instantly change colour to determine if the 3D nanostructures of cancer DNA are present,” Professor Trau said.

He said cancer cells released their DNA into blood plasma when they died.

“So we were very excited about an easy way of catching these circulating free cancer DNA signatures in blood,” Trau said.

“Discovering that cancerous DNA molecules formed entirely different 3D nanostructures from normal circulating DNA was a breakthrough that has enabled an entirely new approach to detect cancer non-invasively in any tissue type including blood.

“This led to the creation of inexpensive and portable detection devices that could eventually be used as a diagnostic tool, possibly with a mobile phone.”

The new technology has proven to be up to 90% accurate in tests involving 200 human cancer samples and normal DNA, according to researchers.

“We certainly don’t know yet whether it’s the Holy Grail for all cancer diagnostics, but it looks really interesting as an incredibly simple universal marker of cancer, and as an accessible and inexpensive technology that doesn’t require complicated lab-based equipment like DNA sequencing,” Professor Trau said.

The findings have been published in the journal Nature Communications and included researchers from UQ’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, School of Medicine and Diamantina Institute.

The research has been supported by a grant from the National Breast Cancer Foundation. Researchers are working with UniQuest, UQ’s commercialisation company, to further develop the technology and license with a commercial partner.

Image credit: University of Queensland.

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