Researchers at the University of Queensland have developed a simple test to see if there are DNA changes in the cells from blood and biopsy tissue.
In contrast, normal DNA folds in a somewhat different way, which does not result in such a strong affinity for gold, the researchers 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".
The test has a sensitivity of about 90 per cent, meaning it would detect about 90 in 100 cases of cancer, with 10 per cent false positives.
Senior researcher Matt Trau said it had been hard to find a "simple marker" that would distinguish cancer cells from healthy ones.
"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".
"We believe that this simple approach would potentially be a better alternative to the current techniques for cancer detection".
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Abu Sina, Research Fellow, The University of Queensland; Laura G. Carrascosa, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, The University of Queensland, and Matt Trau, Professor, The University of Queensland. They studied patterns of cancerous DNA and healthy DNA, finding that the latter is sticky against metal surfaces.
Currently, the test detects only the presence of cancer, not the type of cancer. If cancer DNA is present, the gold nanoparticles will turn a different color than if cancer DNA is not present.
To test for cancer today, doctors must collect a tissue biopsy from a patient's suspected tumour. "This is a huge discovery that no one has grasped before", said Carrascosa.
Chemistry Professor and research associate Matt Trau said, "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 for cancer, and as an accessible and cheap technology that doesn't require complicated lab-based equipment like DNA sequencing".
Cancer is an extremely complicated and variable disease and different types of cancer have different signatures. "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".
Tests in the lab showed that the scientists could distinguish normal DNA from cancer DNA by looking for a colour change in the gold particle solution that was visible to the naked eye within a few minutes. However if the water changes to blue, the test suggest you're cancer free.
A blood test could help to diagnose cancer within just ten minutes. "Further clinical studies are required to evaluate the full clinic potential of the method".