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Universal cancer test not ready yet, researcher warns

Wednesday 12th December 2018
A cancer expert has issued a note of caution over suggestions that a new universal test for cancer may be on the way.
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A much-heralded 'universal cancer test' may still be some way off, a researcher has warned. 

Stories of a possible single blood test to detect any kind of cancer in just ten minutes have emerged following promising research by the University of Queensland in Australia. 

Researchers there have developed a new method of spotting differences between the DNA of cancer cells and healthy cells. The key markers in these instances are methyl groups, which are spread evenly in healthy cells but coalesce into clusters in cancer cells. 

When placed in a particular solution, these clusters cause the DNA to take on a particular shape through a process of epigenetic reprogramming. Once this happens, they produce a substance that can stick to gold and other solid bare metal surfaces. This provides a detectable 'fingerprint' that can be seen in a laboratory.

The researchers were able to develop a test from these findings, with details of the study being published in the journal Nature Communications.

However, Professor Paul Pharoah from the University of Cambridge has urged caution, suggesting there may be limitations to the method.

He told the Cancer Research UK website: “When developing a test like this, researchers will almost always start with samples from patients whose cancer has spread. Because if the test can’t pick up metastatic cancer then it’s not going to work for early stage disease."

The question, he added, is whether a method that can detect advanced cancer can pick up the signs of it in otherwise healthy people at an early stage.

Particular questions about the test include whether it can be enhanced enough to detect very low levels of DNA associated with the disease before it is well established. 

In the paper, the Queensland researchers acknowledge this may be a serious constraint on the effectiveness of the test, stating: "We may not be able to detect cancer on a very early stage.”

Written by Martin Lambert

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