It is a fact that a disease like cancer is difficult to detect in its early stages. Fortunately, things seem to be changing, as researchers from Stanford University have developed a new technique through which they can test the disease and which is 10,000 times more sensitive than what is currently available in hospitals. Their research was published in the American Chemical Society’s journal Central Science and it is available here.
When we’re feeling sick, our bodies produce antibodies which can be found in our blood or saliva, and which are a response to antigens – chemicals considered foreign and potentially harmful by our immune system. To each antigen, there is a respective unique antibody. The issue is that when the illness is still in its early stages, our body does not produce enough antibodies so that doctors can detect exactly what is that is making us sick. This is why often the disease has to progress in order for the patient to be correctly diagnosed.
One of the co-authors of the paper, Peter Robinson, explains that antibodies are proteins, which makes it difficult for researchers to test for them, because there is no quick way in which they can replicate them and make them more detectable.
What Robinson and his team did was to take antigens indicative of thyroid cancer and added a specific piece of DNA to serve as a marker, because DNA – unlike protein – is easier to replicate and detect. So instead of replicating the protein, they replicated the DNA, and antibodies attacked the respective antigens. After some chemical reactions, a large amount of DNA indicated the presence of antigens, which wouldn’t have happened unless the person was sick.
This test is reportedly 800 to 10,000 times more sensitive than any other, which means that we now need fewer antigens and antibodies to detect an illness. Another positive side of it is that, unlike other tests that require radioactive components, this one can be done in hospitals and it only takes two to three hours to confirm the diagnosis.
This test could become available in the next two years, and after this tremendous success, the Stanford team is now working on developing the same technique for other diseases such as Type-1 diabetes and HIV.