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New Blood Test Detects Multiple Diseases Using DNA

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An Israeli-developed blood test could one day be able to spot a range of diseases, including multiple sclerosis and cancer, using signatures of DNA from dying cells.

The work, coming from a team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel and discussed in the peer-reviewed U.S. scientific journal PNAS, is still in its experimental stages. Its huge potential could be realized later on, according to its researchers.

“We are working hard on this but this is far from clinical use,” author Yuval Dor reports in an email interview.

When cells die, it can signal the beginnings of a disease, either the formation of a tumor or an autoimmune condition. Dying cells have been known for some time to release fragmented DNA into the blood circulating in the body.

The new blood test can identify methylation, a chemical modification process that shows particular cell identities.

“This represents a new method for sensitive detection of cell death in specific tissues, and an exciting approach for diagnostic medicine,” explains author Ruth Shemer.

At present, the work has been tested on 320 patients as well as control subjects, and has exhibited some success in detecting conditions such as pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis and diabetes. This is still a small range of diseases detected so far, the authors noted.

It has the makings of a circulating DNA test that can screen individuals for type 1 diabetes risk before the pancreas becomes so badly damaged, said Yale University’s Kevan Herold, who wasn’t involved in the work.

“The hope is that we could intervene at an early stage and try to prevent progression,” the immunobiologist adds.

In the case of pancreatic cancer, for instance, the research team identified pancreatic cell death signs in the blood of around half of 42 individuals. By incorporating a test for cancer mutation, they also distinguished cancer from pancreatitis, or the inflammation of the organ.

Will costs be a major factor? Dor does not think so, believing that DNA sequencing — the technology that the blood test is based on — is becoming less and less expensive over time.

Photo: Andy Leppard | Flickr

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