A remarkable new discovery from researchers at the University of Queensland could revolutionize the way doctors diagnose all cancers. The landmark research has created a fast and cheap cancer-detecting test based on the discovery of a unique DNA nanostructure thought to be common across all types of cancer.

Researchers around the world are working hard to develop better and more efficient ways to detect cancer at its very earliest stages. Plenty of promising work into identifying the genetic fingerprint of cancerous tumors has led to prospective diagnostic blood tests. However, finding one specific DNA biomarker that can point to all kinds of cancer has been elusive.

The new Australian research focused on the distinct pattern of methyl molecules found in cancer DNA fragments. These methylation profiles have, in the past, proved to be promising targets for effective blood-based cancer diagnostic tools. The latest study revealed that, while there isn't a single universal methylation profile that signals all kinds of cancer, these cancerous DNA fragments do tend to fold into unique three-dimensional nano-structures when placed into liquid solutions.

"This unique nano-scaled DNA signature appeared in every type of breast cancer we examined, and in other forms of cancer including prostate, colorectal and lymphoma," says Abu Sina, one of the researchers working on the project.

It was then discovered that this unique cancerous DNA signature had an affinity towards gold particles, meaning a potential simple universal diagnostic test could be developed that can identify cancer cells in any type of human tissue, including blood.

"We designed a simple test using gold nanoparticles that instantly change color to determine if the 3D nano-structures of cancer DNA are present," explains Matt Trau, another researcher working on the project.

The test is only in the very earliest stages of development but initial trials using over 200 blood and tissue samples revealed a 90 percent accuracy. Additionally, the test can reportedly deliver its results in just five to 10 minutes.

Of course, a big limitation is that the test can only identify whether a person generally has cancer, and not specifically what kind of cancer. Nevertheless, this broad diagnostic information, especially if developed into a cheap device, could prove profoundly useful to clinicians as an early detection tool.

So far, the test has only been trialed using breast, prostate, bowel and lymphoma cancers, but the researchers are confident that this specific DNA nanostructure is likely to appear across all cancers. Broader tests are the next step for the research, to both confirm the results across other cancer types, and to understand how early the technique can detect cancer.

"We certainly don't know yet whether it's the holy grail for all cancer diagnostics, but it looks really interesting as an incredibly simple universal marker of cancer, and as an accessible and inexpensive technology that doesn't require complicated lab-based equipment like DNA sequencing," says Trau.

The new study was published in the journal Nature Communications.