Researchers found a correlation between five different types of cancer that could make the disease detectable with a simple blood test.
National Institutes of Health researchers recently discovered that in breast, colon, lung, stomach and endometrial cancers, a telltale chemical modification of DNA called methylation - which essentially tells a gene to turnoff - occurs in the cancerous tumors, according to a NIH announcement.
Researchers plan to develop a blood test that may be used to diagnose a variety of cancers by looking for methylation in a specific gene that is unique to tumors, ZNF154.
"Finding a distinctive methylation-based signature is like looking for a spruce tree in a pine forest," said Laura Elnitski, Ph.D., a computational biologist in the Division of Intramural Research at NIH's National Human Genome Research Institute. "It's a technical challenge to identify, but we found an elevated methylation signature around the gene known as ZNF154 that is unique to tumors."
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In 2013, Elinitski’s group found a methylation signature around ZNF154 in 15 tumor types in 13 different organs and saw it as a possible universal biomarker of cancer.
"No one in my group slept the night after that discovery," Dr. Elnitski said. "We were so excited when we found this candidate biomarker. It's the first of its kind to apply to so many types of cancer."
"Finding the methylation signature was an incredibly arduous and valuable process," said NHGRI scientific director, Dan Kastner, M.D., Ph.D. "These findings could be an important step in developing a test to identify early cancers through a blood test.”
Cancer is detected by an invasive biopsy, which removes cell or tissue from the body for examination under a microscope, the American Cancer Society explains.
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The next step for Elinitski’s team will be to test blood samples from those with bladder, breast, colon, pancreatic and prostate cancers to see how accurate a blood test is at detecting cancerous tumors, the NIH report states.
"We have laid the groundwork for developing a diagnostic test, which offers the hope of catching cancer earlier and dramatically improving the survival rate of people with many types of cancer," Dr. Elnitski said.
There are also plans to work with Christina Annunziata, M.D., Ph.D., an investigator in the Women’s Malignancies Branch and head of the Translational Genomics Section at NIH's National Cancer Institute to see whether a biomarker may be found to diagnose ovarian cancer.
"Ovarian cancer is difficult to detect in its early stages, and there are no proven early detection methods," Annunziata said. "We need a reliable biomarker for detecting the disease when a cure is more likely. We are looking forward to testing Dr. Elnitski's novel approach using DNA methylation signatures."