UK scientists develop new method to diagnose and monitor rare childhood cancer

In collaboration with the Press Association
Germ tumour cells

In research part-funded by Cancer Research UK, scientists at the University of Cambridge have developed what they hope could provide an alternative to taking tissue samples (biopsies) to diagnose and monitor a rare type of cancer, known as germ cell cancer, in children.

Germ cells are those which form sperm and egg cells, but can in very rare cases develop into tumours – usually in the testes or ovaries, but occasionally elsewhere.

"Although relatively rare, childhood germ cell tumours need to be diagnosed accurately and followed up carefully to give us the best chances of treating them," says Professor Nick Coleman from the Department of Pathology, University of Cambridge, who worked on the study.

"At the moment, we are not good enough at diagnosing these tumours and monitoring their treatment: we need better, safer and more cost-effective tests."

The new method takes samples of blood and cerebrospinal fluid and analyses them for tiny fragments of genetic information called microRNAs – often found in higher levels in malignant germ cell tumours.

The researchers used samples from 25 patients to develop the new system, which they say will now be developed further to try to realise its potential.

Dr James Nicholson, Cancer Research UK’s children’s cancer expert and one of the authors of the study, said: “While [this method] is unlikely to be used as an early diagnosis tool, it has the potential to monitor treatment as well as track for possible relapse. It might also be used instead of biopsies in hard-to-reach places, such as the brain or chest."

High-risk malignant germ cell tumours often have low survival - so the findings of the report, published in the British Journal of Cancer, carry hope for an accurate, low-cost and non-invasive diagnostic tool.

But as Dr Nicholson pointed out, the method still need to be tested in robust clinical trials before it can be considered for use as a test to monitor for relapse, or to be used instead of biopsies for dangerous or hard-to-reach tumours.

References

  • Murray, MJ, Bell E, et al. A pipeline to quantify serum and cerebrospinal fluid microRNAs for diagnosis and detection of relapse in paediatric malignant germ-cell tumours. British Journal of Cancer; 15 Dec 2015. dx.doi.org/10.1038/bjc.2015.429
  • Image via Wikimedia Commons by Nephron CC-BY-3.0