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Scientists who are researching cancer and potential cures have long known the importance of early detection. The sooner cancer is detected, the more treatable it is and the better the outcome. Two scientists in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cape Town have discovered a method for diagnosing cancer earlier. Dr Kevin Naidoo, SA Research Chair in Scientific Computing and Dr Jahanshah Askani focused on breast, colon, lung, kidney, ovarian, and brain cancer. They discovered that each of these types of cancer has its own genetic expression pattern, and this can improve early detection. More importantly, it can lead to more specialised treatment methods.

Pioneering Research

This research comes on the back of a wide range of ground-breaking discoveries in the fight against cancer which includes all aspects of the disease from prevention to treatment. This means it is easier to guess who will develop certain cancers, but also complementary therapies which increase a person’s chances of recovering. These take the forms of new technologies and new medicines, but also in understanding nature, so how dogs can sniff out cancer, and how animals such as horses can play a role in aiding the recoveries of cancer patients.

The two scientists used big data to classify the different types of cancer early on, based on their GT expression pattern which shows how complex carbohydrates are built. By identifying variations in the different types of cancer, they can determine the best treatment.

Differences in Treatment Outcomes

The choice of treatment can significantly impact the patient’s outcome. Older treatment modalities focused on destroying the cancer cells. Newer treatments are more targeted and focus instead on preventing the cancer cells from growing and multiplying.

The results of this study have led to a new collaboration between the Department of Chemistry and scientists in human genetics and pathology at UTC, as well as the Centre for Proteomics and Genomics Research. This collaboration will analyse blood samples from South African women to develop a gene expression tool for breast cancer, which will lead to an early diagnostic process.

The study focused on six types of cancer because the scientists were able to compare their diagnoses against the clinical diagnoses more easily. They hope to expand the research in the future to examine as many types of cancer as possible.

The research may also help determine if a patient is likely to develop a specific subtype of cancer and may be able to segregate those patients who are more likely to develop a particularly aggressive variation of the disease. This would allow them to receive more aggressive treatment right from the start.

At this time, the research does not appear to be promising in the prevention of cancer, but its contribution to early detection is significant. The team hopes to integrate computational data analytics into clinical research in South Africa as the start of a worldwide trend. This type of ‘precision medicine’ should result in improved patient care and better survival rates for cancer patients.

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