Use of synthetic antibodies and a finger prick sample of blood could give clinical laboratories new tool to screen for breast cancer


A simple clinical pathology laboratory blood test for early detection of breast cancer may be just around the corner. At the University of Arkansas (UA), researchers are building a library of synthetic antibodies called affitoids that can be used to detect breast cancer in its earliest stage.

Researchers believe they are closing in on the creation of an assay that can rapidly validate proteins secreted by microscopic breast cancer cells. “We want to implement a rapid screen that is sensitive, highly accurate, non-invasive and inexpensive,” said Shannon Servoss, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at UA. “Such a test would be easy to use and applicable to women of all ages, races and ethnicities,” she said. “Hopefully we will be able to make the test sensitive enough so that only a finger prick [specimen] is needed.”

Researchers on Shannon Servoss, Ph.D.’s team at the University of Arkansas are building a library of affitoids associated with breast cancer. Their goal is to develop a simple rapid blood test for early detection of breast cancer. (Image courtesy of University of Arkansas)

Researchers on Shannon Servoss, Ph.D.’s team at the University of Arkansas are building a library of affitoids associated with breast cancer. Their goal is to develop a simple rapid blood test for early detection of breast cancer. (Image courtesy of University of Arkansas)

Currently, affinity reagents —which are molecules that interact with specific proteins—are used to identify proteins that indicate breast cancer. But today only a limited number of affinity reagents are available. Until now, it has been a slow, tedious, and expensive process to develop new ones.

Servoss’s team is overcoming this problem by developing a collection of affitoids, which are synthetic, peptoid-based affinity reagents that are easy and inexpensive to produce. Their work is funded by the Arkansas Biosciences Institute, an ORAU (Oak Ridge Associated Universities) Ralph E. Power Junior Faculty Enhancement Award, and the UA Women’s Giving Circle. The research is designed to advance development of techniques for protein validation, and accelerate development of a blood test for breast cancer.

“This technique is superior to those currently available because affitoids specific for proteins secreted by breast cancer cells can be rapidly selected from a large collection, which isn’t too expensive to build,” explained Servoss. “The selected affitoids will be used to determine a profile—a protein fingerprint—that indicates breast cancer. Of course, all of this is happening at the cell level, before the tumor is detectable.”

While the ultimate goal of this research is early detection of breast cancer, Servoss noted that this research is not limited to breast cancer. She said that affitoids can be designed to identify other proteins secreted in response to diseases. Therefore, the concept could be applied to developing tests to detect various cancers, including ovarian and lung cancer, as well as diseases like diabetes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year more than 40,000 women die due to breast cancer, and approximately 200,000 women are diagnosed with the disease. A simple, inexpensive blood test would encourage screening and may detect cancer early when it is most treatable.

Servoss said a library of breast cancer affitoids will be completed over the next five years. “Development of a blood test depends on the research of many and could take significantly longer,” she explained. “It is further complicated because there are multiple subtypes of breast cancer that will have different protein fingerprints.”

For pathologists and clinical laboratory administrators, the progress of this research effort at the University of Arkansas shows how efforts to develop different technologies can lead to the creation of new methods for detecting cancer and other types of diseases. It is notable that the lead researcher characterizes the potential of this work to produce a rapid screening test to identify early stage breast cancer that would be “sensitive, highly accurate, non-invasive, and inexpensive.”

It is intriguing that the UA research work could eventually produce a simple blood test for early detection of breast cancer that requires only a finger stick sample. Use of a blood sample could first shift tissue-based analysis of breast cancer away from anatomic pathology laboratories and into clinical laboratories. However, since the researchers already believe that only a simple finger stick specimen will be needed to run the rapid test, this might actually allow a point-of-care test device to be used to diagnose breast cancer in near-patient settings and in real time. —P. Kirk

Related Information:

“Fingerprinting” Breast Cancer Cells

New Test Genetically Fingerprints Tumors

Breast cancer blood test being developed

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