Editor’s note: BioWatch is a regular feature on Fridays.Scientists at Duke University Medical Center have developed a non-invasive test that could detect lung cancer and other diseases early enough to treat them more successfully.

Their new diagnostic test uses a technique that sounds like something out of science fiction: matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight mass spectometry (MALDI-TOF MS).

Using the technique, Duke radiologists identified a specific protein, serum amyloid A, which is elevated in the blood of lung cancer patients but not in normal patients.

While this protein has been shown elevated in cancers and other diseases previously, the Duke team is the first to use the laser mass spectrometry instrument to identify it and others that may be involved in lung

Exciting advance

Edward Patz, M.D., professor of radiology and pharmacology/cancer biology at Duke, tells Local Tech Wire the researchers believe the new technique “could be enormously important.”

“Our technique is a new paradigm for identifying protein targets in cancer, because we are zeroing in on the disease-causing protein itself rather than searching for a defective gene and then hunting down its relevant proteins,” Patz says.

Using the technique is a particularly exciting advance because current diagnostic tools — such as PET and CT scans — have had no obvious impact on lung cancer mortality rates over the last several decades, Patz adds. The overall five-year survival rate remains about 14 percent, despite major advances in genomics and drug discovery.

Patz’s approach is the reverse of how scientists generally discover the genetics that underlie a disease. Typically, researchers isolate a defective gene. But, a single gene can produce many different proteins — only one of which may be the culprit.

Identifying the relevant proteins in a disease puts scientists much closer to developing novel diagnostic and therapeutic targets, says Patz.

Once identified, the proteins can be used as biologic “markers” to diagnose the earliest stages of cancer, possibly before a PET scan or CT scan pick up the image of a tumor on the lungs. Then researchers can develop new drugs designed to block a protein’s unique role in causing the disease.

Applied for patent

From a clinical perspective, the development of serum biomarkers has benefits, as well. The technique requires only a blood sample from the patient; hence, it is less invasive than tissue biopsies. It is also more cost efficient and may be much more accurate than CT and PET scans, according to Patz.

Patz, Michael Fitzgerald of Duke’s chemistry department and another researcher have formed BioMark Diagnostics Inc., to develop the technique commercially, but they are “meticulous about he science,” he says. So, it could be from six months to two years before they are ready to launch.

“We have applied for a patent on the platform,” he says, adding that while the others have used the technique, the Duke team expanded its use in novel ways. Patz explains that they apply a computer algorithm to each protein they discover to “fingerprint it.” This identifies its role in the disease process, providing information they will use to find ways to block its disease-causing effects in the cell.

“It is useful to know that you have a protein marker for a disease, but it is far more useful to understand the biology of that protein and use that knowledge to develop strategies to combat the disease,” Patz says.

Patz says he expects BioMark Diagnostics to remain a virtual company with the scientists continuing their research at Duke until they’re ready to seek financing.

“Right now I’m interested in the science and developing new clinical diagnostics,” he says. “The business end is a separate issue. Most investors want to see a product.”

Patz says the company founders have started looking into the details getting their venture off the ground.

“We’ve spoken to venture capitalists,” he says, “and what they’re interested in are the financial rewards. Where is my return? But we can’t make promises or put anything in the public domain until we’ve shown it’s right. We certainly see a commercial project behind this, however.”