60-Second Science

Blood Protein Patterns Tell Tumor Potential

Is that lump malignant or benign? A blood test that measures levels of hundreds of different proteins may provide biopsy-equivalent answers. Wayt Gibbs reports.

A routine CAT scan turns up a suspicious spot. Is it a benign lump? Or a cancerous tumor? In the case of lung spots, four out of five turn out to be harmless. Unfortunately, making that determination takes a long needle and a biopsy, which means a puncture wound in the chest and a risk of infection.

Leroy Hood and colleagues at Seattle’s Institute for Systems Biology have devised a painless blood test that could eliminate the need for most biopsies.

They identified 371 proteins that coat lung tumors or leak out of them. Then they looked at blood samples taken from people who had had lung biopsies.

A pattern emerged: 13 proteins were significantly higher or lower in patients who had lung cancer than in those whose lumps were benign.

The researchers tried the blood test on different patients, and found that when it gave an “all-clear” result, it was correct 90 percent of the time. The work appears in the journal Science Translational Medicine. [Xiao-jun Li et al., A Blood-Based Proteomic Classifier for the Molecular Characterization of Pulmonary Nodules]

Indi, a diagnostics maker, is commercializing the blood test. Hood says the same approach should work for almost any disease—which could make diagnostics much less prickly.

—Wayt Gibbs

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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