Finding cancer in a tiny drop of body fluid containing relatively few cells now may be possible with a new method of analyzing multiple genes in small samples of DNA, the cellular building blocks of our genetic code. The molecular test may be especially helpful in detecting cancer cells in breast fluid.
Preliminary tests of the new method, which can detect cancer in a sample with as few as 50 cells, were conducted on a small number of breast tissue samples and are reported in the July 1 issue of Cancer Research. "Our goal is to add a molecular solution to problems in cancer diagnosis where the sample is not adequate or microscopic evaluation of cells is unclear," says Sara Sukumar, Ph.D., the Barbara B. Rubenstein Professor of Oncology at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. "If additional studies prove the feasibility of this test, it will provide molecular clues to cellular pathology and mammography findings that may help to decide whether cancer is present."
The test, called quantitative multiplex methylation-specific PCR or QM-MSP, works by looking for unusually high levels of molecules embedded by a process called methylation within critical regions of DNA. In this process, small methyl groups regulate DNAs message-manufacturing process by attaching to the "on" switch of genes. Abnormal levels of methylation improperly turn the gene switch off, which ultimately leads to the loss of critical proteins found in normal cells. This adds to the cascade of genetic events leading to cancer.
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