A universal blood test that could identify any type of cancer in a patient is one step closer, researchers say, potentially opening the door to diagnosing unusual variations and avoiding expensive and often painful invasive biopsies. Although in its early stages, the Lymphocyte Genome Sensitivity (LGS) test is already being explored for commercial purposes as Oncascan, spotting cancer by examining how readily white blood cells are damaged by ultraviolet light.
White blood cells are used by the body to defend against disease, including cancer, which gave project lead Professor Diana Anderson the first ideas of how the LGS test might work. By further stressing the cells through the application of UV light, she and her team realized the cells of those with cancer were more readily damaged than those of healthy individuals.
After being treated with UV light, the samples are placed into an electric field where they form a "tail" - similar to the trailing edge of a comet in flight - of broken DNA. The longer the tail, the more DNA damage.
The initial research, at the University of Bradford in the UK, looked at 208 individuals, of whom 94 were healthy and the remaining 114 had been referred to specialist cancer clinics prior to diagnosis and treatment.
As predicted, the tail measurements correlated to those who were later diagnosed with cancer, those who exhibited pre-cancerous conditions, and finally those who were healthy. According to Anderson, the likelihood of that differentiation happening by chance is 1 in 1,000.
Still, it's undoubtedly early days for the LGS test, and there are clinical trials underway to see how broadly applicable and reliable it might be. First up is its potential for screening colorectal cancer, which would normally be diagnosed by a colonoscopy, an uncomfortable and off-putting procedure.
If borne out by the trials, however, the test could well prove a valuable addition to the cancer screening toolkit. The university has already filed patents on it, and plans to spin it off commercially under the brand Oncascan.