"It seems to be a general feature for all cancer".
The position of these molecules forms part of the epigenome - a set of instructions that controls how genes are expressed.
Elin Gray, a senior cancer researcher at Edith Cowan University, said the research was exciting piece of work that offered "a lot of potential". "We certainly don't know yet whether it's the holy grail for all cancer diagnostics, but it looks really interesting as an incredibly simple universal marker for cancer, and as an accessible and low-cost technology that doesn't require complicated lab-based equipment like DNA sequencing", Trau said.
The team noticed that in cancer cells, methyl groups were clustered at certain positions on the genome - a stark contrast to healthy cells where the groups are dispersed throughout.
The paper went on to describe how methylscape differences were exploited to develop simple and highly sensitive and selective electrochemical or colorimetric one-step assays for the detection of cancer. When they die, they essentially explode and release their cargo, including DNA, which then circulates.
When circulating tumor DNA fragments are placed in water, they begin to fold into 3D shapes different than DNA from healthy cells-driven by the dense clusters of methyl groups found along DNA molecules that have been reprogrammed by cancer.
The discovery was made by a medical research team in Queensland.
The technology has proven to be up to 90 per cent accurate in tests involving 200 human cancer samples and normal DNA.
A universal cancer test would not be precise enough to detect tumour location or size, but it enables doctors to give a yes or no answer.
"The gold standard is the biopsy, and I think that will still have to be done", he said.
"So we were very excited about an easy way of catching these circulating free cancer DNA signatures in blood", he said.
Whether the biomarker is indeed common to all cancers also remains unclear, Dr Gray said.
Scientists have developed a universal cancer test that can detect traces of the disease in a patient's bloodstream.
Professor Trau said the next stage of the research was to conduct more clinical testing.
"We certainly don't know yet whether it's the Holy Grail or not for all cancer diagnostics", concluded Dr. Trau, "but it looks really interesting as an incredibly simple universal marker of cancer, and as a very accessible and cheap technology that does not require complicated lab-based equipment like DNA sequencing".
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