Researchers have devised a test that can quickly and cheaply identify any type of cancer from any type of tissue, be that blood or a biopsy sample. Indeed, this test is so convenient and affordable that in the not-too-distant future we could all be carrying around our own personal cancer detector – on our cell phones.

The test hinges on a unique DNA signature that appears to be found in all cancers, discovered by a team of scientists at the University of Queensland’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN). Their findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.

“Because cancer is an extremely complicated and variable disease, it has been difficult to find a simple signature common to all cancers, yet distinct from healthy cells,” Abu Sina, a researcher at the Institute, said in a statement.

And so, Sina and colleagues compared the epigenetic patterns on the genomes of cancer cells to those of healthy cells, specifically focusing on patterns of methyl groups. These work a little bit like a remote control device, turning various genes on and off.

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. This “unique” signature was studied in all types of breast cancer looked at as well as various other types of cancer, including bowel, prostate, and lymphoma cancers. Matt Trau, a professor at AIBN who led the research, describes it as like a genetic program or app that the cancerous cell needs in order to function.

“Virtually every piece of cancerous DNA we examined had this highly predictable pattern,” he explained.

But that’s not all. These signatures are gold-hungry, which makes them possible to identify with a simple color-change test. Trials are still in the initial stages and it has only been tested on breast, bowel, prostate, and lymphoma cancers but the researchers say it could have the ability to spot any type of cancer with up to 90 percent accuracy. 

So, how does it work?

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