A joint US/Chile research team is investigating how cellular lactic acid levels could assist early diagnosis of mesothelioma, potentially saving thousands of lives.
Researchers at Chile's Centro de Estudios Cientificos are hoping to develop a non-invasive diagnostic tool for cancer which identifies lactic acid volumes in individual cells by way of a molecular sensor.
The research could have important implications for the battle against mesothelioma; an aggressive, asbestos-related cancer which attacks the lung linings and of which positive diagnoses often come too late to prevent spread beyond the reach of surgery.
The Chilean team, in co-operation with Wolf Frommer of California's Carnegie Institution for Science, claims the new tool will detect lactic acid non-invasively in single cells faster than any other measurement procedure.
The potential benefits of the new method lie in the fact that cancer cells produce lactic acid 3 to 5 times quicker than non-tumour cells. "The high rate of lactate production in the cancer cell is the hallmark of cancer metabolism," Prof Frommer said in a press statement.
He added that the outcome will aid clinicians' comprehension of the subtleties of cancer and the creation of new ways to combat it.
Prof Frommer's US research base has spearheaded the development of Forster Resonance Energy Transfer (FRET) sensors, which use a modest colour change to gauge the flow of sugars in individual cells.
Researchers say the sensor has quantified unusually low levels of lactic acid and can deliver an "unprecedented" spectrum of sensitivity and detection.
The research team's leader, Felipe Barros, said that by allowing measurement of individual cell metabolisms, the tool provides scientists with "a new window" for grasping how cancers such as mesothelioma work.
"Standard methods to measure lactate are based on reactions among enzymes, which require a large number of cells in complex cell mixtures," Prof Barros said. "That makes it difficult or even impossible to see how different types of cells are acting when cancerous."
Emma Costin at Simpson Millar comments: "A particular problem with mesothelioma is that it is usually diagnosed at a relatively late stage when symptoms develop, following a latent period between the time of initial exposure to asbestos and first intrusive symptoms of sometimes 40 years or more. As with many cancers the sooner it is identified the better the prospects of treatment. Imaging tests, such as CT, PET and MRI scans, can help in early stage diagnosis but are expensive not definitive in every instance. "
"This news is to be welcomed particularly if it ultimately results in a relatively low cost diagnostic tool that can be carried out as part of routine screening where the work history or other circumstances indicate an elevated risk of the disease."