Researchers Say They’ve Created Universal Cancer Test That Detects Mutating Cells in Just 10 Minutes

The tool, which is still in early stages of development, can’t identify the specific type of cancer present or gauge the severity of the disease

DSC_3709 smaller.jpg
When healthy DNA is added to gold particle-laden (and therefore pink) water, it turns blue, but when cancerous DNA is added, the water remains pink University of Queensland

Scientists from Australia’s University of Queensland have created a “universal” cancer test that exploits the singular DNA structure cancerous cells form when placed in water to detect anomalies in less than 10 minutes. But as Rich Haridy notes for New Atlas, the tool—newly detailed in Nature Communications—is still in the earliest stages of development, meaning you likely won’t be seeing it in your doctor’s office anytime soon. The test is also limited by its inability to identify the specific type of cancer present, as well as the severity of the disease.

Still, USA Today’s Kristin Lam points out, the technology could eventually make diagnostic testing more accessible and affordable by circumventing the need for invasive tissue biopsies. In an interview with CNN’s Euan McKirdy, study co-author Laura Carrascosa adds that the test’s speed and simplicity could make it particularly beneficial for those living in rural or underdeveloped areas.

According to The Guardian’s Ian Sample, healthy human cells rely on the distribution pattern of DNA-clinging molecules called methyl groups to function effectively. In cancer cells, this distribution pattern goes haywire, shifting to encourage the growth of mutating genes. Although researchers have recorded this trend previously, the Queensland group is the first to observe how methyl patterns affect DNA samples placed in water.

Writing for The Conversation, co-authors Abu Sina, Matt Trau and Carrascosa explain that cancerous DNA fragments submersed in water fold into three-dimensional structures. Drawing on this realization, the researchers developed a test that relies on both unique DNA behavior and the properties of an unexpected ingredient—gold particles, which are actually commonly found in labs due to their color-changing, molecular-detection capabilities.

To test for the presence of cancer, the team added DNA samples to water containing gold nanoparticles that turned the liquid pink. When DNA from cancerous cells mixed with the water, it stayed pink. But when DNA from healthy cells was added, a divergent form of particle-binding made the the water turn blue.

The researchers have yet to test their method on humans, but analyses of more than 200 tissue and blood samples have detected cancerous cells—including breast, prostate, bowel and lymphoma, all of which share a telltale methyl pattern CNN’s McKirdy says is likely to be replicated in other types of the disease—with 90 percent accuracy.

Dino Di Carlo, the director of cancer nanotechnology at the University of California, Los Angeles’ cancer center, was not involved in the study, but he tells USA Today’s Lam that he’s more concerned about the potential for false positives than the test’s accuracy rate. Gary Schwitzer of seconds this sentiment, explaining that false alarms and imprecise results that simply mark the presence of cancer lead to more tests, including radiation and biopsies, as well as needless anxiety. As he concludes, “Knowing sensitivity but not specificity is an incomplete picture.”

According to Market Watch’s Jacob Passy, the test is one of several recently touted as groundbreaking diagnostic tools. In January, scientists from Johns Hopkins University announced the creation of CancerSEEK, a blood test that screens for eight common cancers, and in June, another group of U.S. researchers revealed they’d developed a blood test capable of identifying as many as 10 types of cancer. All three methods remain in early stages of development.

“We certainly don't know yet whether it’s the holy grail for all cancer diagnostics,” study co-author Matt Trau says in a statement, “but it looks really interesting as an incredibly simple universal marker of cancer, and as an accessible and inexpensive technology that doesn’t require complicated lab-based equipment like DNA sequencing.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.