Author: press release provided by University of Connecticut
Modern genetic testing can predict your risk of contracting particular diseases based on predispositions discovered in your DNA. But what if similar biotechnology could tell you that you’ve got a disease before you notice any symptoms? What if it could even tell you, before any signs of a tumor, that you have cancer?
Jim Rusling, professor of chemistry at UConn and professor of cell biology at the UConn Health Center, ponders these questions on a daily basis. Since 2006, he and colleagues at the University and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have been developing techniques to detect biomarker proteins – the physiological traits that indicate that a person has a specific disease – for prostate and oral cancer. Because these biomarkers are often present in the blood in a disease’s early stages, they can be used for early detection and prevention.
“DNA predicts which proteins can be made, but it can’t predict which proteins are actively expressed,” Rusling says. “It only assesses the risk of a disease. There’s a big push now to measure proteins as biomarkers.”
In a recent publication in the journal Analytical Chemistry, Rusling and his colleagues describe a system they developed to detect with record sensitivity the bloodstream levels of a protein associated with several types of oral cancer, including head and neck squamous cell carcinomas. The project was funded by a $1.5 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at NIH.
The protein, called interleukin-6 or IL-6, is normally present in very low levels in the bloodstream – so low that previous biomarker sensors might not be able to detect it. This and other biomarkers are signaling molecules, which can instruct cells that have become cancerous to grow faster. Their levels can increase even before tumors begin to form, enabling early detection that might head off the formation of cancerous growths.