A new system that may pinpoint potential "biomarkers" of early forms of cancer has been created by researchers at the NIBRT Dublin-Oxford Glycobiology Laboratory at University College Dublin.
The researchers have revealed that they do so by looking at the structures of specific sugar molecules, which are attached either to proteins made by cancerous cells or to proteins involved in the host response.
Professor Pauline Rudd, who led the project, believes that this work may allow scientists to device new ways to monitor disease progression and response to therapy more accurately than is currently possible.
She points out that cancer cells not only have different sets of proteins from normal human cells, but that their proteins have changes in the types and numbers of sugar molecules that are attached to them.
According to her, being able to detect such changes holds the key to developing a new approach for diagnosing cancer.
"We have found that there are alterations in sugars attached to proteins in blood serum from all cancers we have looked at, and some of these appear to be early markers of the disease processes. What is more, we have been able to isolate several sugar-linked variants of particular proteins which are associated with different types of cancer, including prostate, pancreatic and ovarian and breast cancers," she says.
"In the long term, we envisage that by finding more specific sugar variants, we will be able to use combinations of these as biomarkers to allow very accurate early diagnosis of particular cancers," she adds.
Pauline believes that such techniques may act alongside, or even replace physical methods like scanning, which are less dependable for early diagnosis.
To detect differences between cancerous and normal cells, she says, her team is working on a robotic technique to analyse the sugars.
"Sugars are removed from the proteins and then broken down into very small components using enzymes. These fragments can be individually characterised leading to the formation of a 'fingerprint' for each sugar we analyse," she says.
"By comparing the fingerprints of sugars from serum or individual proteins from cancer patients with those of disease-free people, we can find sugars which differ slightly between the two - these are the ones that are being tested as potential biomarkers. We are also refining a statistical analysis program which will enable more detailed examination of the data. As our method is high-throughput, we hope to be able to identify a large number of markers which can be taken forward for further testing and then clinical trials, leading to their potential use in both diagnosis and monitoring of cancer progression," she adds.
A presentation on the study was made at the Society for Experimental Biology's Annual Meeting in Marseille on Thursday.