Matt Trau in his lab at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at the University of Queensland. File picture
Matt Trau in his lab at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at the University of Queensland. File picture

‘Simple, quick, cheap’: Cancer test hope

QUEENSLAND researchers have developed a test that can detect cancer in any tissue type, including blood, in what is hoped to be a "game changer" for cancer diagnosis.

The scientists from the ­University of Queensland's Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology designed the simple, quick and inexpensive test based on a unique chemical signature that appears common to all types of cancer.

Although the research is still in its early stages, and needs to be validated in thousands of patients, they are searching for a commercial partner to develop the test.

The scientists, including Professor Matt Trau, Dr Laura Carrascosa and Dr Abu Sina, invented the technology around changes in chemical patterns on the DNA of cancer cells, compared with healthy cells.

Professor Matt Trau in his lab at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology. File picture
Professor Matt Trau in his lab at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology. File picture

Using a festive season analogy, Dr Carrascosa said it was similar to finding different decorations on Christmas trees.

"The tree is the DNA. Normal cells tend to have decorations that cover the entire tree," she said. "When cancer happens, the tree loses most of its decoration. The baubles that are left tend to cluster only on some parts of the tree."

They found the DNA ­marker in every type of breast cancer they examined, and in other forms of cancer, including prostate, colorectal and lymphoma.

Dr Carrascosa said that the test had been trialled on 200 tissue samples, detecting cancer with up to 90 per cent accuracy.

She said the technology hinged on an observation that differences in chemical patterns on DNA affected its ability to interact with metal surfaces, such as gold.

Their test involves extracting DNA from a tissue sample, mixing it with water, adding gold nanoparticles and then watching for a reaction.

"If the nanoparticles fail to change colour, it suggests you've got cancer. If they turn blue, it suggests you haven't," Dr Carrascosa said.

At this stage, the test indicates only whether someone has cancer, but cannot tell the type of cancer they have or how advanced it is.

"It would be a very initial screening test to tell people something is not quite right," Dr Sina said. "This could be done in conjunction with other tests and the combined information may give us a lot of ideas of where the cancer is and the stage.

"There is a lot of potential. This new discovery could be a game-changer in ... cancer diagnostics. It's not perfect yet, but it's a promising start."

The scientists' bold hope is that the technology will become the "holy grail for all cancer diagnostics".

The study is published today in the journal Nature Communications.