Valerie Clark
Jan 12, 2012

Earlier detection of cancer is a reality, thanks to three midwest universities

Photo of cancer researchers. Credit: Northwestern University, Evanston-Northwestern Healthcare“Well, at least they caught it early.” That’s what optimistic people will say about a newly diagnosed cancer patient. The government supports numerous cancer studies every year, yet we’re still not where we need to be in terms of diagnostics. There is technology available that could enable even earlier detection of cancerous cells, but the process of getting university-based research into the clinic and ultimately into your doctor’s office is a long, windy and unpredictable road.

University researchers play a major part in cancer studies, especially during the experimental stages. While many researchers are developing new treatments that may only prolong the inevitable, some other groups are looking upstream for ways to detect cancer before tumors develop. According to recent reports, three Midwestern universities -- University of North Dakota (UND), Northwestern University (in Evanston, IL), and University of Missouri (UM) -- have developed three different cancer screening methods that can detect cancerous cells earlier than ever before and may be cheaper, faster and more accurate.

The scientists from these three universities have managed to secure the financial backing needed to go beyond the university realm and begin collecting clinical data for safety regulations. In two to five years, their innovations could provide routine cancer screening for the general population and eliminate the misconception that cutting edge diagnostics are only for the wealthy.

The Northwestern University researcher Vadim Backman and his team of scientists have demonstrated how their cancer diagnostic works on a couple hundred patients with nearly 90 percent accuracy. It’s as simple as a strep-throat test. If this technology ends up in your doctor’s office, the doc will swab your cheek to test for lung cancer. The team of researchers has been able to detect different cancer types by harvesting cells from easily accessible areas near target organs. For example, cheek cells can show signs of lung cancer and cells from just inside the rectum can be checked for colon cancer. Backman’s research partner is Dr. Hemant Roy, the head of gastroenterology at Chicago’s NorthShore University Health System. This duo is headed for clinical trials using this bio-photonic method for ovarian cancer screening with cervical cells. (See the video below to learn more about their research.)

University of North Dakota and Neomatrix (Irvine, CA) have agreed to work together for earlier detection of breast cancer. Dr. Edward Sauter and his research team at UND have developed a biomarker-based methodology for detecting breast-cancer cells. The biomarker is a combination of three specific proteins. The proteins are contained in a fluid that can be extracted from the breast using a breast pump. The test cannot be used for nursing women, but otherwise the likelihood of cancer is greatest when all three proteins are present in the breast fluid. The partnership between UND and Neomatrix will make large-scale clinical testing possible and bring them closer to gaining FDA approval.

The third piece of evidence comes from the University of Missouri and their department of biomedical engineering. John Viator is the scientist leading in an initiative that involves a photoacoustic method to use a laser-induced ultrasound for earlier detection of melanoma. Their focus is on melanoma but the method is being developed to detect an entire line-up of cancer cells, including breast cancer. A blood sample is collected and hit with a laser beam under a scope. If cancer cells are present, the melanin contained within the cell walls absorbs the light, essentially tagging the cancer cells for easy detection. Viator has reportedly signed a licensing agreement with an un-named company and he expects the technology will soon be available to scientists and academia for cancer research.

The recurring theme with all three of these university research success stories is an accurate yet cost-efficient alternative to existing cancer screening procedures. With even earlier detection of cancer cells from biological fluids, optimists will be saying “Well, at least they caught it before there was a tumor!”

Video: Northwestern University researchers are among those testing new methods for early cancer diagnosis.