Blood, Urine Test May Detect Cancer

From the WebMD Archives

March 16, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Forget scalpels and needles: A new test to detect cancer would require only a few drops of blood or perhaps urine. The test, still in the early stages of development, would be based on unexpected new findings published in the March 17 issue of the journal Science.

Studies already are planned to see whether the test accurately predicts cancer. If it does, they could be available to physicians very soon. "We are enthusiastic," study author David Sidransky, MD, tells WebMD.

Because a cell's genetic machinery goes haywire when it becomes cancerous, most researchers trying to unlock the secrets of cancer are looking at the very center of the tumor cell -- the nucleus -- where the cell's genetic material is found. Sidransky's team at Johns Hopkins University looked somewhere else: at the mysterious energy-producing particles within the cell, known as mitochondria.

Previous studies have shown that certain particles in the mitochondria of tumor cells have been altered or mutated. Sidransky's team found that tumor cells release these altered particles, called mtDNA, and release them in large amounts in bladder, head/neck, and lung tumors. The mtDNA could be detected in the blood or urine indicating bladder, head/neck, or lung cancer.


The most accurate way to test for cancer would be for people to have their mtDNA analyzed while they are still healthy, at age 40 or 45. Routine, annual tests then could quickly detect mtDNA.

"The test would probably work for any [cancer], possibly even lymphomas," says Sidransky, who is a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "But the biggest problems -- breast, lung, colon, prostate cancer -- those are the ones we hope this test might be useful for."

A mitochondria expert Michael D. Brown, PhD, tells WebMD that the mtDNA test still has a major hurdle to overcome: It not only must detect mtDNA associated with cancer, but it must be able to show that when it does detect mtDNA mutations it means the patient has cancer and not some other problem. But Brown, a researcher in the Emory University Center for Molecular Medicine, says that the technology needed to create an mtDNA test already is available.


"If it were shown [the mtDNA tests] were specific to cancer and consistently found it, and [showed] which types of cancer and at which stage, the test would be very useful," Brown says.

Sidransky says, "It should take 6-12 months to get the technology [of the test] done, then we'll be doing definitive studies [in patients]. Once you get the technology going, maybe in two or three years you can get [the test] into the general population."

Vital Information:

  • Researchers think they may be able to develop tests for cancer that would require only a few drops of blood or possibly urine.
  • In a study looking at tumor cells, researchers found large amounts of genetic mutations in the mitochondria, or energy-producing particles of the cell.
  • The technology needed to create a test for mtDNA already exists, so if the technique really works, it could be available within a few years.
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