New diagnostic test for cancer promises less trauma for patients

18 March 2008

A rapid new diagnostic test developed by Sydney researchers will mean fewer tests and less trauma for cancer patients says Richard Christopherson, who has a Personal Chair in the School of Molecular and Microbial Biosciences in the Faculty of Science.

Researchers hope the test will provide improved and more effective treatments and outcomes for cancer patients.

"The DotScan antibody microarray is a better diagnostic method because it gives you more information at a lower cost," said Professor Christopherson.

He explained that the very mutations in cancer cells that cause uncontrolled growth also cause a changed 'signature' or 'profile' on the cell surface. Every type of cancer has a unique signature.

"For leukaemia, the current methods of diagnosis include looking at the shape of the cells, staining the cells in different ways, identifying 10-15 surface molecules, and also looking for chromosomal changes.

"All of that information is brought together and then the diagnosis is made. Our test provides an extensive profile of the surface of the cell, and that's enough to diagnose the cancer," said Professor Christopherson, a key member of Sydney University's Cancer Research Network.

The Cancer Research Network Sydney Cancer Conference (SCC2008) will be held at the University of Sydney on 24-26 July, 2008.

Translational research ("that is, from bench to bedside," said Professor Christopherson) is the theme of the both the Network and the conference. He said that if a researcher has a particular issue or question that involves cancer, "there will be someone linked to the University of Sydney who knows the answer".

The Network specifically fosters collaborations between basic researchers such as himself and clinical researchers.A good example is the science of separating, identifying and characterising cell profiles of proteins ('Proteomics'), which enabled Professor Christopherson to develop his faster and more efficient diagnostic test.

Proteomics will also lead to individual, tailor-made treatment programs. The prognosis for the patient also becomes more predictable.

"It becomes easier to say whether the patient is likely to survive, whether there are going to be secondary tumours, or whether the cancer is likely to respond to chemotherapy," said Professor Christopherson.

"At the moment, the experiment is done in the patient. If the chemotherapy works, then the doctor keeps giving the patient those drugs, and if the drugs don't work, they change to something else. It would be far more satisfactory to predict in advance what drug combination to use.

"These anticancer drugs are toxic and if they have no effect on the cancer it just sets the patient back further."

The DotScan diagnostic test is marketed by a University spin-off company, Medsaic, and is currently used by some pathology labs. "The uptake of the microarray technology has been faster with researchers. Pathology labs are more conservative," said Professor Christopherson.

The Cancer Research Network was established in 2006 and is a cross-Faculty initiative of the University of Sydney. "The University is a real research powerhouse in this area. It has got breadth and depth," says Professor Christopherson. "Getting all these people to interact is challenging. So the Network was necessary to get the maximum synergy out of all of that talent.

For more information on the Cancer Research Network Conference visit the conference website.

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