In the near future, cancer detection may no longer require invasive procedures. Instead, a simple blood test will do.
Researchers have found that elevated levels of a series of protein in the blood is an indicator of cancer. A certain process called protein phosphorylation adds a phosphate group to protein in blood. This can lead to the formation of cancer cells. Phosphorylated protein, or phosphoproteins, are cancer biomarkers.
Before this discovery, scientists did not know that they could measure phosphoproteins in the blood. This is because the liver produces phosphatase, which enters the blood stream and dephosphorylates proteins. However, a new study has found that measuring phosphoproteins as well as detecting cancer through blood tests are possible.
"This is definitely a breakthrough, showing the feasibility of using phosphoproteins in blood for detecting and monitoring diseases," says Andy Tao, one of the researchers.
The researchers used a centrifuge to separate plasma from red blood cells. They also separated microvesicles and exosome particles from the cells as well. Microvesicles and exosomes may be a contributing factor to metastasis, the spread of cancer from one part of the body to another. The particles also encapsulate phosphoproteins. Dr. Tao claims that this is an effective way of identifying biomarkers even in years-old samples.
Among 2,400 phosphoproteins in a blood sample, the researchers found that 144 of these were elevated in cancer patients.
Biopsies for cancer detection are often invasive. They involve the extraction of tissue, which will then be examined for indications of cancer. Liquid biopsies, on the other hand, are far less invasive and complicated. It can also help with early cancer detection, which is mostly crucial to effectively beating the disease.
Liquid biopsies can also be a way to monitor cancer patients and their treatment. Doctors can use blood samples to see how effective treatment is at getting rid of cancer. Liquid biopsies can be effective in monitoring patients after a successful treatment as well. "There is currently almost no way to monitor patients after treatment," says Dr. Tao. Doctors usually have to wait if the cancer comes back in order to evaluate the treatment's effectiveness. By then, of course, it would already be too late.
Though the blood samples in the study were from breast cancer patients, the researchers say that the test can work for other types of cancer. All cancers release microvesicles and exosomes, so a liquid biopsy will be able to detect the presence of any cancer.
However, centrifuges aren't always available at medical facilities. To address this, Dr. Tao's company is working on new technology that can analyze phosphoproteins. All doctors would have to do is insert a blood sample onto a cartridge. This way, centrifuges won't be necessary.
This study can open doors to easier, less invasive cancer detection as well as cancer monitoring. The findings are certainly a breakthrough, and cancer may now be easier than ever to detect, monitor, and treat.
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