Medical researchers from Australia released a potential bombshell breakthrough in cancer research this week - outlining in a scientific journal how they have developed a cheap and simple blood test that can detect most if not all types of cancer within 10 minutes.
"I think this is potentially very exciting," University of Otago Professor Mike Eccles told TVNZ 1's Breakfast this morning as he helped explain the findings. "It still needs a little more work to develop it further but I think it could be a really good breakthrough, actually."
The University of Queensland researchers were able to detect cancer cells with 90 per cent accuracy in tissue and blood samples, they noted in the journal Nature Communications.
"We designed a simple test using gold nanoparticles that instantly change colour to determine if the 3D nanostructures of cancer DNA are present," Professor Matt Trau said in a statement released yesterday, explaining that cancer cells release their DNA into blood plasma when they die.
"So we were very excited about an easy way of catching these circulating free cancer DNA signatures in blood," he said.
Mr Eccles of Otago University suggested thinking of DNA as beads on a string when visualising how the test works.
"On normal cells, these [beads] are evenly distributed, but in cancer cells they're actually bunched up together," he said. "It's like there's been knots put into the string. And then there's long sections where there's no beads.
"This makes it bind to the gold nanoparticles, and it's much stronger binding than the normal DNA is."
While he can see a future where these tests could be commonplace, Mr Eccles said he thinks they will be used in conjunction with existing tests.
"The gold standard is the biopsy, and I think that will still have to be done," he said. "This is just a way of getting early detection."
The next step for the test will be validating it with tests on more cancer patients "to make sure that it actually stands up", followed by clinical trials that could take years, he said.
Mr Trau of Queensland University acknowledged yesterday that "we certainly don't know yet whether it's the holy grail for all cancer diagnostics". But the potential is certainly there, he said.
"It looks really interesting as an incredibly simple universal marker of cancer, and as an accessible and inexpensive technology that doesn't require complicated lab-based equipment like DNA sequencing," he said.