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Short abnormal pieces of DNA have been discovered in patients with late-stage colorectal and breast cancer. If these can also be found in early stage cancers, then an early diagnostic test could be established which can aid in early treatment.

Cancerous tumors occur when there is a relentless growth of a particular type of cell or organ in the body. That is what cancer is. Usually, a cell performs its function and then, when it is no longer needed and is old enough or becomes diseased or distressed in any way, it gives off signals on the outside of its membrane to signal to scavenger cells to come and recycle it.

Unfortunately for us, there is usually no accompanying illness to go with it. In the very early stages of cancer, there can be no fever or pain or any other symptoms. In addition to this, a cancerous growth can grow, undetected, for years with the affected person able to function completely normally, especially if it is growing into a body cavity.

It is for this reason that a major part of the cancer research effort is directed at early detection. There is a lot of work being carried out into the genetic abnormalities which a person could be born with and which could ultimately lead to cancer occurring. Some genes could be mutations of normal genes and lead to the production of abnormal proteins. Some genes could become mutated through environmental factors or through other influences. Whatever the reason, these problems can suddenly lead to problems with the way that the cells work. There is a lot of research to try and trace these abnormal genes. There is also a lot of work into environmental causes which could lead to different types of cancer, for example, lung cancer.

Simple Test

The holy grail of cancer research would be a simple test which was non-invasive, which means that it would not need a biopsy. It could be a simple blood test for example. But more than this, it would lead to the early detection of a cancerous tumor. Better to detect it in the earliest possible stages or, the best solution would be to be able to predict which individuals will go on to develop cancer. It should be able to help to predict which groups of people are more susceptible to develop the disease, and it should be cheap so that if necessary, hundreds of thousands of people can be tested.

Breakthrough Research

Recently, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have revealed a proof of principle study which opens the way to just such a test being developed.

In an initial experiment, they have performed whole genome tests on the plasma of ten patients with late-stage colorectal and breast cancer and compared it with the plasma from ten healthy people. Plasma is the fluid in which the blood cells float. It also carries an assortment of other cells and molecules. These can be scavenger cells, which look after the body by protecting it from invasion, or hormones traveling from one part of the body to the other.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Rebecca J. Leary, Mark Sausen, Isaac Kinde, Nickolas Papadopoulos, John D. Carpten, David Craig, Joyce O’Shaughnessy, Kenneth W. Kinzler, Giovanni Parmigiani, Bert Vogelstein, Luis A. Diaz, Jr., and Victor E. Velculescu, Detection of Chromosomal Alterations in the Circulation of Cancer Patients with Whole-Genome Sequencing, Sci Transl Med 28 November 2012 4:162ra154.
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