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Novel test proves helpful in the early detection of cancer

A team of Indian scientists have achieved a stunning breakthrough in the early diagnosis of cancer.

Cancer is a mystery that continues to plague the world. The disease accounts for one in every six deaths worldwide, killing more people every year than HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. According to the National Institute of Cancer Prevention and Research, Noida, India sees around 1.1 million new cases of cancer and 800,000 related deaths annually.

Early detection of cancer helps with diagnosis and to formulate a proper treatment. Hence reducing the number of deaths and the strain on the healthcare industry as cancer treatments are quite extensive and expensive. Tissue biopsy is a common technique that can help identify the intensity of the malignant tumour. Due to the invasive nature of tissue biopsy, many doctors and scientists prefer liquid biopsies (detecting cancer biomarkers in the blood). The malignant cancer cells release components such as cell-free DNA, cell-free RNA, cell-free tumour DNA, exosomes, stem cells, micro-RNAs and transcription factors into the bloodstream to establish metastasis. However, these components are released in minute quantities which is not sufficient for confirming early stages of cancer through simple tests, rendering them imprecise.

The researchers at the University of Central Florida developed nanoparticles with nickel cores and platinum shells that were found to increase the efficiency of the ELISA (Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay) test. ELISA works on the principle of antigen-antibody interaction. This assay is extremely useful in determining several diseases as well as pregnancy. The enzyme usually used in ELISA is horseradish peroxidase which shows a colour upon binding to a suitable substrate to indicate the relevant biomarker, but it is not efficient. The nanoparticles were used in place of peroxidase in this study, and it was 300 times more sensitive in detecting carcinogenic antigens, which is a marker for gastrointestinal cancer. 

Indian Scientists have developed a novel non-invasive test to detect new types of biomarkers in the blood even before the tumour starts to form. The test is called HrC and it is the first-ever prognostic test for cancer till date, It was co-developed by Mumbai-based Epigeneres Biotechnology Limited and Singapore-based Tzar Labs. The test is able to identify 25 different types of cancer and the company plans to bring it to the market by September-October. The studies for the test published in Stem Cell Reviews and Reports. The positive development comes at a time when the world is struggling to eliminate COVID-19. 

The test looks for two key biomarkers- transcription factor Oct-4a and a type of stem cell called Very Small Embryonic-like Stem Cells (VSELS). Stem cells have the ability to create multiple copies of their own and can also form other types of cells (pluripotency). Pluripotent stem cell therapy has long been of use in regenerative medicine. Apart from embryonic stem cells and Induced Pluripotent stem cells, VSELS are also capable of pluripotency. However, VSELS have been under controversy in the scientific community ever since its discovery in 2006 as many deem the cells to be non-existent or a “distraction” due to its microscopic size of 3-5 microns.

The scientists standardised a scale determining the concentrations of these biomarkers in the blood from 104 cancer patients and used it as a reference for the HrC test. They performed the test in a double-blinded clinical trial in 1000 people where half of them were cancer patients. The VSELS concentration was much higher in that of the cancer patients as compared to the ones that did not have cancer. The transcription factor Oct-4a levels were also found to vary with different stages of cancer which helped to identify the stages of progression with 99% accuracy.

The HrC test is a major breakthrough in the early detection of cancer and it can help reduce the cost of cancer tests. Toxicity from chemotherapy and other cancer treatments can be avoided with the help of this test. Further research is required to establish the link between genetic biomarkers of the test and different types of cancer. If larger clinical trials are able to validate the HrC test, it would be extremely beneficial to the Indian biotech industry. 

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