Early cancer detection can mean a lot for the treatment of patients and for stopping the progression of the illness.
It's a difficult yet extremely important task: as soon as the cancer is detected, the chances for a more effective treatment become higher.
Now, experts from the National Human Genome Research Institute believe that a common gene signature among five deadly cancers may be a step towards developing an early blood test for the disease.
Detecting The Gene Signature
Researchers said the common gene signature is not a genetic mutation, but it is a change in methylation, a genetic function that involves the action of molecules known as methyl groups.
In 2013, the team detected the change among samples of 15 various tumor types. They noticed the change in a gene called ZNF154, which is only present in tumors.
Scientists realized that knowledge of ZNF154 could be used to develop a universal cancer biomarker, and so they sought out to determine just how effective it could be when applied for early cancer detection.
At first, the application was restricted to five different cancers: lung, colon, breast, endometrial and stomach cancers. This was done in order to confirm the presence of the gene signature.
Afterwards, they used a special computer program to look for the gene signature in people without cancer and diagnosed patients. Their goal is to pinpoint just how much of the tumor DNA is needed to be present in a blood sample in order to successfully detect the disease.
When the amount of methyl molecules present in the blood was 99 percent, the program was still able to detect the gene signature in the sample. For researchers, this was a very positive result.
Developing Future Diagnostic Tests
With that, the team hopes to form the foundations of a future diagnostic test.
"We have laid the groundwork for developing a diagnostic test, which offers the hope of catching cancer earlier and dramatically improving the survival rate of people with many types of cancer," said lead researcher Dr. Laura Elnitski.
Their next step is to find a similar genetic pattern in ovarian cancer. This type of cancer is highly lethal as it isn't easily detected unless it has already spread.
Dr. Christina Annunziata, who will be part of the next step, said a reliable biomarker is needed for detecting the disease.
At the same time, they'll also be looking into the blood samples from patients with other cancers such as bladder, colon, prostate and pancreatic cancers.
Furthermore, the team has yet to understand how ZNF154 really works and what its function is. They also have to comprehend the link between the tumors and elevated methylation.
Meanwhile, most cancer treatments today are turning personal. Scientists have found that each type of cancer can have its own genetic pattern of changes. This is why a broad approach targeting the "organ of origin" may not be the best way to treat the disease.
The team's findings are featured in the Journal of Molecular Diagnostics.