Aarhus University Seal

Simple saliva swab can reveal cancer

Researchers from Aarhus University have developed a method that makes it possible to find significantly more cancer cases than previously. This can improve the chances of recovery for patients. The method has recently been verified and rubber-stamped in one of the world's most prestigious scientific journals and is ready for use at the hospitals.

Fast analyses and an early diagnosis are very important for cancer patients, their treatment options, and chances of being cured. A method can now measure specific cellular changes by means of a saliva swab or a blood sample before the cancer even manages to develop into a tumour.

"With this method we can screen people and be able to find significantly more cancer cases at a very early stage where the disease still only consists of very few cancer cells. In other words, we can find the cancer far earlier than we can with many of the diagnostic methods which are used today. The method can measure what are known as epigenetic changes in the cells, which is to say, changes in the system that activates or switches off the genes in the cells. Almost all types of cancer begin with these changes, which have previously been very difficult to measure," says Lise Lotte Hansen, associate professor at the Department of Biomedicine at Aarhus University.

Following the discovery that epigenetic studies provide the opportunity to understand how cells become cancer cells, researchers from all around the world have been working to develop methods for detecting these changes. Lise Lotte Hansen has spent several years developing the method in collaboration with Associate Professor Tomasz K. Wojdacz from the Department of Biomedicine and Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies at Aarhus University.

The method is called Methylation Sensitive High Resolution Melting. It was initially developed to detect breast cancer and lung cancer, which are some of the most frequently occurring types of cancer in Denmark. It is being continuously developed and can be used for all types of cancer.

Can also detect cardiovascular diseases

The method has just received a seal of approval from one of most respected scientific journals, Nature Biotechnology, where the method has been tested on damaged DNA and on samples with epigenetic changes almost too small to be registered. But despite these challenges, the method was still able to detect the changes that cause cancer. Which is testimony to a reliable method with huge potential.

"In addition to being accurate in relation to discovering cancer, it can also be developed to find signs of other diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. This means it will be possible to begin monitoring or treatment at an earlier stage, and that will benefit the patients," says co-author of the scientific article, MSc Dianna Hussmann from the Department of Biomedicine at Aarhus University.

The equipment to carry out the analysis is already present in most hospitals in Denmark and abroad. So this means the method is ready for use.

About the study

  • Type of study: Comparison of methods of analysis.
  • External funding: The study is financed by the EU financed international consortium Blueprint.
  • Partners: Christoph Bock from the Research Centre for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, who headed the analysis.
  • Read the full scientific article ”Quantitative comparison of DNA methylation assays for biomarker development and clinical applications ”Quantitative comparison of DNA methylation assays for biomarker development and clinical applications  . 

Further information

Associate Professor Lise Lotte Hansen
Aarhus University, Department of Biomedicine
Mobile: (+45) 2899 2180