Singapore Scientists Find Low-cost Method Of Testing Cancer

Scientists from the National University of Singapore or NUS have come across a new low-cost method of testing for cancers. Known as the Heatrich-BS assay, this new test sequences clinical samples, which have been heated to isolate cancer-specific signatures found in the patient's blood.

The new method gives an exciting non-invasive alternative to tissue biopsies. It costs around S$50 or 35) from start to finish, compared to other sequencing methods that can cost up to S$1,000 or $740 to conduct. Led by Assistant Professor Cheow Lih Feng, the team consisting of researchers from the NUS Department of Biomedical Engineering under the College of Design and Engineering as well as the NUS Institute for Health Innovation & Technology, is now looking at industry partnerships to bring their technology to market.

The present methods of testing for cancers can suffer from a lack of sensitivity or from being too expensive to be used for regular screening. The DNA in our blood, the genetic information that tells our cells how to synthesise proteins and other important biological building blocks, is produced by different organs in our body.

Cancer cells also release DNA into the bloodstream that can be detected by analysing blood samples, known as liquid biopsies. However, screening through all the genetic material in a sample , through a method called whole-genome sequencing, can be expensive and labour intensive.

Some clinicians instead target cancer-specific signatures in cell-free DNA, almost like hunting for specific faces in a large crowd of people instead of inspecting every single individual. Yet, even such methods can be imperfect, Asst. Prof Cheow explained. "Some patients may have cancer signatures that look slightly different and allow them to slip through the screening process," he said.

The NUS team published their findings in the scientific journal Science Advances on 9 September 2022, and a patent has also been filed for their discovery.

The Heatrich-BS assay has been trialled at the National Cancer Centre in Singapore, monitoring patients with colorectal cancer. By comparing the results of their blood analysis with CT scans that imaged the size of patients' tumours, the team found that there was a high correlation between how much cancer-specific DNA was detected in a patient's blood sample and the size of their tumours over time.

"This way, doctors can monitor patients for their response to treatment and tailor their therapy regimes," Asst. Prof Cheow said. He also pointed out that their method has the potential to work universally across all types of cancer since they all demonstrate the property of enriching CpG islands with cancer-specific biomarkers. "It's a one-size fits all," he added.

The assay may also help accelerate future academic research, helping scientists study different subtypes of cancer for a low cost and therefore improving the development of future cancer diagnoses and therapies.

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