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A New Blood Test To Detect Cancer Uses Malaria Protein

Aug 19, 2018 10:49 PM EDT
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In many cases, early detection of cancer is crucial in surviving the disease. Now, a new blood test shows great promise on that front.

Scientists from the University of Copenhagen have developed a new method of early cancer diagnosis with a blood test that uses a protein produced by malaria.

"We have developed a method where we take a blood sample and with great sensitivity and specificity, we're able to retrieve the individual cancer cells from the blood," Ali Salanti, joint study author and a professor at University of Copenhagen's Department of Immunology and Microbiology, explains in a statement. "We have already detected various types of cancer cells in blood samples. And if there is a cancer cell in your blood, you have a tumor somewhere in your body."

The Malaria Protein

In a new study published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers demonstrate their use of a protein produced by malaria called VAR2CSA, which can help detect cancer of nearly all types with a simple blood test. This specific protein sticks to a sugar molecule found in over 95 percent of all kinds of cancer cells.

A cancerous tumor consists of different cancer cells, some of which are called circulating tumor cells that drift and spread through the blood. These can metastasize, which reportedly cause about 90 percent of cancer-related fatalities.

Since VAR2CSA is known to stick to most cancer cells, the researchers found that they can attach a tiny magnetic particle to this protein, add it to a blood sample, and simply retrieve these circulating tumor cells that can wreak so much havoc in the body.

At one point, the team was able to retrieve nine out of 10 cancer cells from a 5-milliliter blood sample.

"We count the number of cancer cells and based on that we're able to make a prognosis," Mette Ørskov Agerbæk, joint study author, says. "You can, for example, decide to change a given treatment if the number of circulating tumour cells does not change during the treatment the patient is currently undergoing."

The Future Of This Method

The results are incredibly encouraging, demonstrating even better numbers during testing than existing methods of detection.

There are current techniques in today's medical landscape that are able to detect cancer cells in the blood using a specific marker. Unfortunately, not all tumor cells have this marker, so tumor cells that have spread to other organs cannot be detected with these tests.

Researchers are optimistic that this new blood test can be used to screen people at risk of developing cancer. It can also diagnose individuals with the faintest symptoms as well as determine the stage of the disease, which is quite challenging with current methods.

With this, the treatment can be adjusted accordingly, possibly offering a greater hope for survival.

Agerbæk adds that live cancer cells can even be retrieved and farmed, so researchers can use it for testing of potential treatments.

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