Researchers at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) have recently discovered a common signature for potentially all cancers that have allowed them to be identified in a completely new way. In reality, they have identified from their molecular structure that the DNA in cancerous cells is irresistibly drawn to… gold.
The search for a common signature
‘Because cancer is an extremely complicated and variable disease, it has been difficult to find a simple signature common to all cancers, yet distinct from healthy cells,’ explains Abu Sina, a researcher at AIBN. To reduce these difficulties and complications, researchers focused on what is being referred to as ‘circulating free DNA’ which are fragments of eroded DNA that move freely in blood plasma after the parent cancer cells die.
They analyzed epigenetic patterns in cancerous cell and healthy cell genomes. In other words, they examined the shape of molecules in these DNA cells known as methyl groups. These methyl groups play an important role because they are able to control which genes are active or inactive at any given moment. However, researchers also noted a crucial difference between healthy cells and cancerous cells.
A strong connection to gold
Although healthy cells have methyl groups present in their genome, in cancerous cells, methyl groups are only found in very precise areas, which is a characteristic that they noticed in various types of cancer.
‘Virtually every piece of cancerous DNA we examined had this highly predictable pattern,’ said Matt Trau, coauthor of the study that was published in Nature Communications.
Furthermore, these concentrated methyl nuclei can cause circulating free DNA fragments to adopt a 3D nanostructure which irresistibly sticks to gold. On this basis, researchers then developed gold nanoparticles that were capable of changing colour depending on whether these characteristic methyl groups were present in the sample or not. A quick and effective test that leaves the results directly visible to the naked eye. And according to researchers, they even have a 90% success rate.
‘We certainly don’t know yet whether it’s the Holy Grail or not for all cancer diagnostics, but it looks really interesting as an incredibly simple universal market of cancer and as a very accessible and inexpensive technology that does not require complicated lab-based equipment like DNA sequencing,’ continued Trau.
The method isn’t perfect yet though, and it is just in the early stages. For now, we can’t detect the gravity of the cancer from these tests, nor can we localize it. But if researchers manage to improve their success, they could end up replacing numerous costly and complicated tests in the future.