Using water and gold, Australian researchers discover ‘universal cancer biomarker’

The aggregation of cancer DNA particles onto gold nanoparticles can be seen as the solution changes color from red to blue. (University of Queensland)

Australian researchers at the University of Queensland have discovered a unique DNA structure that appears to be shared by many cancers and could be used to develop a simple diagnostic test that could be performed in under 10 minutes with the naked eye.

When circulating tumor DNA fragments are placed in water, they begin to fold into 3D shapes different than DNA from healthy cells—driven by the dense clusters of methyl groups found along DNA molecules that have been reprogrammed by cancer.

Those specific structures can then be separated from the solution by sticking them to bare metal surfaces such as gold, the researchers found.

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By comparison, the epigenetic methyl groups on DNA from healthy cells—dubbed methylscape by the researcher and help regulate gene expression—are typically spread out across the genome and don’t cause the same folding.

“We designed a simple test using gold nanoparticles that instantly change color to determine if the 3D nanostructures of cancer DNA are present,” said Matt Trau, a professor of chemistry at the University of Queensland and deputy director and co-founder of the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology.

The test also works electrochemically by using flat gold electrodes and small amounts of purified DNA. The researchers found the signature in multiple types of breast cancer as well as in prostate and colorectal cancer, and lymphoma.

It has shown to be up to 90% accurate in tests of 200 human cancer samples and normal DNA, they said, though it has not been tested in a clinical trial. Their research was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Currently, the researchers are working with the university’s commercialization company, UniQuest, to develop and license the technology; they plan to assess its use in detecting different cancer types across all stages from different bodily fluids as well as in gauging responses to treatment.

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