A new blood test to detect traces of a virus associated with nose cancer has been developed by local researchers. And it could be in the clinic in just three months.
Doctors said it could allow for earlier detection of residual or recurrent nose cancer - the eighth most common and seventh most deadly cancer among Singapore men.
The test homes in on a DNA fragment of the Epstein-Barr virus, called BamHI-W, which is found in almost all patients with nose cancer, said Dr Tan Min-Han who led the development of the blood test.
"You can think of it as though you have a bowl of soup and you are picking out a specific ingredient," the senior principal investigator from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) added.
When it is detected, this indicates the possible presence of the cancer.
You can think of it as though you have a bowl of soup and you are picking out a specific ingredient.
DR TAN MIN-HAN, senior principal investigator from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN), on how his team's blood test works.
The blood test was used in a trial with 46 nose cancer patients at the National Cancer Centre Singapore, where it was able to detect the virus 89 per cent of the time.
It outperformed other blood tests used which had detection rates of 67 and 85 per cent. These tests pick out another gene of the Epstein-Barr virus called EBNA1.
A single cell in the Epstein-Barr virus has multiple copies of the BamHI-W but just one of the EBNA1, which makes BamHI-W easier to detect, making the new blood test more sensitive, said Ms Jess Vo, a lab officer involved in the research.
The results were published in the prestigious international journal Scientific Reports last month.
The technology was patented recently and is being commercialised.
The team anticipates that it could be available for use in clinics in three months.
Nose cancer is the most common head and neck cancer here, with between 350 and 400 cases diagnosed each year.
It mainly occurs in men aged from 35 to 55. It is difficult to detect because it has no obvious symptoms.
Patients usually see a doctor only when they get regular nosebleeds, and are often diagnosed when the cancer is at an advanced stage.
Dr Lim Chwee Ming, a consultant at the division of surgical oncology (head and neck surgery) at the National University Cancer Institute, Singapore, said the amount of BamHI-W detected through the blood test after cancer treatment could help an oncologist decide if a patient needs additional chemotherapy after the main or initial treatment to kill any cancer cells that may be left behind.
The blood test could also be beneficial as a tool to screen people at high risk of developing nose cancer, such as those with a family history of the ailment, he added.
The IBN team plans to assess the effectiveness of the blood test as a screening tool in future studies.
Commenting on the effort, Dr Tan Wu Meng, a consultant at Parkway Cancer Centre, said: "This next-generation test provides another tool to estimate the prognosis of patients, and we look forward to further validation of the test in the months ahead."