A universal test which can detect traces of any cancer in a patient’s bloodstream in ten minutes has been developed by scientists from the University of Queensland. As it stands the test has a sensitivity of 90%, so is able to detect 90 in 100 cases of cancer.

The test will serve as a first step in checking for cancer, with doctors then following up positive results with more specific investigations to identify the cancer type and stage.

In health cells, DNA is patterned with molecules called methyl groups which silence unneeded genes and increasing others. In cancer cells, the pattern is taken over so only genes aiding the cancer are switched on.

The Queensland researchers created the test by first uncovering that cancer DNA and normal DNA stick to metal surfaces differently. From this, a test was created which could identify one from the other.

 In the test, suspect DNA is added to water containing small gold nanoparticles, which turns the water pink. When added, cancer DNA does nothing to this colour; healthy cells, on the other hand, turn the water blue. According to the researchers, the test is sensitive enough to detect “very low levels of cancer DNA in a sample”.

The next step is a series of clinical trials on patients with a broader range of cancer types than have so far been tested.