A group of researchers claim to have created a “breakthrough” blood test that could identify the presence of cancer. While such a test sounds promising, it’s not necessarily foolproof, experts cautioned.
When analyzing healthy cells and cancer cells, scientists at the University of Queensland in Australia found cancer DNA fragments adhered to solid surfaces such as metals in very different ways. Using that information, they developed a “simple” test where blood would be mixed with a solution containing gold nanoparticles, according to an article they published in Nature Communications, a peer-reviewed, open access scientific journal. If cancerous DNA of any kind is present in the blood, the gold nanoparticles change color.
“Discovering that cancerous DNA molecules formed entirely different 3D nanostructures from normal circulating DNA was a breakthrough that has enabled an entirely new approach to detect cancer non-invasively in any tissue type including blood,” said Matt Trau, a professor at the University of Queensland and one of the study’s co-authors, in a statement.
The researchers argued that their test could pave the way for a cheaper, faster cancer diagnosis process. The testing process only takes 10 minutes and can be adapted to occur within an inexpensive and portable diagnosis device, they said. “We certainly don’t know yet whether it’s the holy grail for all cancer diagnostics, 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,” Trau said.
Observers though were most hesitant in celebrating the news. Indeed, this is just the latest example of a “simple” cancer blood test. Back in June, a separate group of researchers from the U.S. announced they had created a blood test that could identify as many as 10 types of cancer. And in January, scientists from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine announced the formulation of a $500 blood test called CancerSEEK, which could identify eight types of cancer before symptoms developed.
“I have often said that anytime you hear about a ‘simple cancer test,’ run for the hills because there’s no such thing,” Gary Schwitzer, founder and publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, wrote in an article advising caution regarding the latest cancer blood test. “This researcher may be referring to the technology, but the application of that technology — the leap from lab to bedside — brings with it many levels of complexity.”
In particular, the Australian researchers noted that their test successfully identified 90% of cancer cases, but as Schwitzer noted “the claim of an incredibly simple universal marker starts to sound a bit hollow” for those whose cancer wasn’t identified by the test.
Moreover, while the test allegedly can identify if someone has cancer to begin with, it cannot yet determine the origin or severity of the disease. For that, patients would need to go through additional testing, which takes time and can create anxiety.
Others expressed concern about whether the test could produce false positives, which could force people to go through unnecessary testing and stress.
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