The advancement could allow earlier detection of cancer in the blood and better treatment

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard have improved blood tests’ ability to detect and monitor cancer.

The new advancement could allow earlier detection of circulating tumour DNA in blood samples, improving the sensitivity of liquid biopsies to detect, monitor and guide treatment.

Tumours shed DNA from dying cells, which circulate in the bloodstream before being broken down.

Several tests have already been created to detect this tumour DNA, which could potentially assist doctors when diagnosing or monitoring cancer as well as selecting treatment. However, developing tests sensitive enough to detect small amounts of this DNA has been challenging for researchers.

The body uses two primary strategies to remove circulating DNA from the bloodstream: enzymes known as DNases, which circulate in the blood and break down DNA and immune cells called macrophages, which take up cell-free DNA as blood is filtered through the liver.

Researchers developed two different priming agents (injectable molecules) that interfere with the body’s ability to remove circulating tumour DNA from the bloodstream.

Researchers separately targeted these processes to prevent DNases from breaking down DNA by designing a monoclonal antibody to bind to circulating DNA and protect it from enzymes, as well as a nanoparticle to block macrophages from taking up cell-free DNA.

Using mice that received transplants of cancer cells, researchers found that the percentage of DNA levels of detectable early-stage lung metastases increased from less than 10% to above 75% within two weeks.

Christopher Love, St Laurent professor of chemical engineering, Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, MIT, said: “The ability to get peak activity of these agents within a couple of hours… means that someone could go into a doctor’s office, receive an agent like this and then give their blood for the test itself, all within one visit.”

The researchers have since launched a company called Amplify Bio to further develop the technology and advance it to clinical trials.