Australian researchers make breakthrough in bowel cancer detection

Australian scientists in an international team have made a breakthrough in bowel cancer screening using engineered bacteria.

In a new study, researchers from the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) and the University of Adelaide engineered a bacteria capable of detecting mutated DNA released from colorectal cancer cells.

The breakthrough opens the door to faster detection of bowel cancer.

The team, led by researchers Dan Worthley, Susan Woods and Josephine Wright, engineered a bacteria called Acinetobacter baylyi (A. baylyi) — known for its ability to capture DNA from its environment — to detect a mutated KRAS gene that drives colorectal cancer.

The bacteria were then screened for DNA markers of bowel cancer. The process, dubbed ‘CATCH,’ was 100 percent effective in differentiating between models with and without bowel cancer.

“CATCH has the potential to detect bowel cancer early with the aim of preventing more people from dying of this and other cancers,” Woods said in a media release.

“This study demonstrates how bacteria can be designed to detect specific DNA sequences to diagnose disease in hard-to-reach places.”

According to the Cancer Council, bowel cancer is the fourth-most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia.

It is estimated that one in 19 Australians will be diagnosed with bowel cancer by the age of 85 and in 2020 it was responsible for 5,354 deaths.

Diagnosis has historically proved difficult because it is often symptomless in its early stages.

Researchers are hopeful the engineered bacteria could be ingested as a pill that would then give off a signal to the bloodstream if cancer is detected, allowing diagnosis via a blood test.

“In the future, we will detect and prevent many diseases, including bowel cancer, with cells, not drugs,” Worthley said.

“We hope that this invention, of life detecting life, will be useful for clinicians, scientists and engineers to help the community wherever and whenever DNA detection is important.” ■

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