The DNA in cancer cells can have mutations that affect the growth of a specific tumour, but these differences depend on the type of cancer.
The paper is published in the journal Nature Communications (DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-07214-w) and included researchers from UQ's Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, School of Medicine and Diamantina Institute.
"Even for breast cancer, there are a dozen types, so we thought there would be different tests for different types of cancer". The researchers found the signature in multiple types of breast cancer as well as in prostate and colorectal cancer, and lymphoma.
Trau said: "This happens in one drop of fluid".
So, rather than focus on the methylation itself, the researchers in the new study looked at what the methylation did to the overall structure and chemical properties of the cancer DNA.
Almost every cell in a person's body has the same DNA, but studies have found that cancer's progression causes this DNA to undergo considerable reprogramming.
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.
"Virtually every piece of cancerous DNA we examined had this highly predictable pattern", he explained.
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"It seems that to launch cancer, you have to run a series of genetic apps".
The investigators found that the methylscape of cancer DNA causes DNA fragments to fold up into 3D "nanostructures" that have an affinity for gold. "You can detect it by eye, it's as simple as that". So far we have tested more than 200 tissue and blood samples, with 90 percent accuracy.
"We believe that this simple approach would potentially be a better alternative to the current techniques for cancer detection".
"Our technique could be a screening tool to inform clinicians that a patient may have cancer, but they would require subsequent tests with other techniques to identify the cancer type and stage", Carrascosa said.
The researchers are working with UniQuest, a commercializing company, to further develop and eventually license the technology.
Co-author Dr. Laura Carrascosa said: "There's been a big hunt to find whether there is some distinct DNA signature that is just in the cancer and not in the rest of the body".
"It's in early stages and will have to be validated ... but I think it's very interesting - it's a totally different approach", Associate Professor Gray said.
"So we were very excited about an easy way of catching these circulating free cancer DNA signatures in blood", he said.
Scientists have developed a universal cancer detection test that traces infectious presence in the bloodstream, the Guardian reported on Wednesday.