New Blood Test Monitors DNA Changes in Breast Cancer Patients
Breast cancer treatments are often poorly guided by elusive symptoms. Women need to quickly evaluate prognostics and likelihood of recurrence to seek the most appropriate treatment, but current diagnosis methods remain far from being ideal. The result is wasted money, time and, probably, many preventable deaths.
Thanks to scientists working at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, this situation could change in the future. They have been working on a new blood test that tracks cancer progression at the genetic level. This is an extremely useful tool that aids medical treatments, and could become a powerful breast cancer diagnosis tool.
Detecting cancerous DNA chains
John Hopkins researchers used the experimental cMethDNA assay blood test to track DNA changes in women suffering from breast cancers in advanced stages. Throughout a period of seven years, scientists collected and analyzed blood samples from 141 patients, making use of statistical models to find genetic patterns that correlated with empirical outcomes. A phenomenon known as hypermethylation was critical for the study.
DNA hypermethylation is believed to be a genetic biomarker of cancer because it manifests in the genes that cause it. It consists of mutations that affect gene expression, hereby, preventing cells from growing naturally.
This mechanism appears to be implicated in the emergence of tumor cells. To see signs of hypermethylation, scientists looked into the blood's serum of the patients. For each woman, blood samples were taken at three different periods to track the progression of the disease and its genetic hypermethylation: at the beginning of each patient's therapy, four weeks later, and 12 weeks later.
Tragically, most of the women had died at the end of the 7-year study, but the way in which outcomes unraveled was correctly predicted by the blood test. With the cMethDNA assay, scientists successfully tracked changes in the DNA of the women as cancers progressed, and were able to extrapolate accurate predictions. Women who had higher levels of DNA hypermethylation tended to succumb to the disease sooner than those with lower levels of hypermethylation.
Genetic-based cancer therapy ahead?
The association between DNA hypermethylation and cancer is a relatively recent discovery. Currently, it's being intensely researched. Researchers believe cMethDNA assay may hold the potential to predict breast cancer recurrence and/or predisposition even before any symptoms are detected. However, researchers say that more studies are necessary to confirm the current findings. Scientists need to know if this method also works for patients with earlier stages of breast cancer. Research is currently under way to figure out just that.
In the future, the knowledge gathered about DNA hypermethylation could aid not only early-stage diagnosis (notoriously difficult for breast cancer) but also the development of innovative genetic-based treatments for breast and other types of cancer. Fighting one of the deadliest diseases at the genetic level is a natural next step in the medical realm.