Researchers have recently identified a new biomarker for the early detection of colorectal cancer (CRC), potentially leading to replacements for invasive techniques such as biopsies and colonoscopies that are the current standard for diagnosing the disease.
The team studied a sugar molecule – hyaluronan – that coats nanoparticles called extracellular vesicles (EVs) on the surface of colon cancer cells. They found that the sugar molecule was responsible for making EVs more soft and pliable, helping cancer cells move faster through the extracellular matrix than normal cells.
They knew that EVs are secreted by all cells, but the ones secreted by the cancer cells had the hyaluronan molecule on them. Moreover, cancer cells secrete twice the amount of EVs when compared to healthy cells, making this marker abundantly available in the body.
Moreover, these EVs are abundant available in body fluids, making it easy to isolate them non-invasively from a patient’s body for early cancer diagnosis.
“We were able to find that the hyaluronan molecules are abundant on EVs. A single EV contains hyaluronan molecules that are approximately 250-500 nanometres in length, which is 10,000 times smaller than the tip of a hair,” Tatini Rakshit, lead researcher at S N Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences told Happiest Health.
She added that the molecule has been known to be a potential biomarker for the early detection of different types of cancer, including CRC.
To study these particles, the researchers used a technique called Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) nanoindentation, in which a microscopic finger is dragged across the surfaces of EVs to assess their mechanical properties such as stickiness, softness, or rigidity.
The next step in studying this sugar-coated EV as a possible biomarker involves getting access to human biological samples from hospitals. The researchers hope this will lead to development of simple blood or stool tests for the earlier detection of CRC, which affects 6.9 out of every one lakh people in the country.
“We are interested in getting stool samples from cancer patients so that we can isolate these extracellular vesicles and study them more using spectroscopy”, says Rakshit, adding that once more data is available from human samples, there is a potential for implementing this technique in diagnostic centres across India.
However, they said that it may take a few years to build it into a cancer diagnostic.
The team included researchers from Shiv Nadar Institute of Eminence in Delhi, along with those from S N Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences and Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics in Kolkata, and IIT Bhilai in Chhattisgarh.