30-minute cancer test being developed for doctors' offices

Imagine a cancer test that could be done in a doctor's office in about 30 minutes, using a small sample of saliva or urine. That's what researchers in Moncton are developing and say could be just a couple of years away from reality.

Minimally-invasive test uses bodily fluid, such as saliva, says Atlantic Cancer Research Institute

The Atlantic Cancer Research Institute has developed a cancer-detecting test that could be done in a doctor's office using a small sample of bodily fluid, such as saliva or urine, instead of a biopsy.

The technology, which is still in the testing phase, could be just a couple of years away from reality, said Dr. Rodney Ouellette, the president and scientific director of the Moncton-based institute.

Dr. Rodney Ouellette, president and scientific director of the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute, says the cancer-detecting test could be in use within a couple of years. (Courtesy of the New Brunswick Innovation Fund)
"We’re going to be pushing this and hopefully our partnerships with other groups and companies will accelerate the entire process," Ouellette told CBC's Shift on Wednesday.

The minimally-invasive test could also indicate which type of cancer and how aggressive it is — all within about 30 minutes, he said.

Eventually, the technology could be adapted to detect other diseases in both humans and animals, including neurological diseases and infectious diseases, said Ouellette, who will be honoured next month with the R3 Innovation Award for Excellence in Applied Research from the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation.

It could even be done at home, he said.

"The technology is robust enough so that we’re looking to develop what we call a lab on a chip — where most of the processes would occur on a very small device, not requiring a whole bunch of sophisticated instruments and such. So theoretically, we’re hoping that one day we would have something that would be easily done in a home setting, almost like a home pregnancy test, or a diabetes test."

One of the big challenges today with certain cancers is to find it early … So this is where we feel the most impact of this technology will occur.- Dr. Rodney Ouellette

The way it works is that cells put out "little packages of information," fragments of plasma membrane called microvesicles, which transit freely in body fluids, said Ouellette.

Active cancer cells excrete a specific chemical that binds to peptides, a small piece of protein. So by adding a novel synthetic peptide to the fluid sample, if a bond develops, then there is cancer growing somewhere, he said.

The research results by the non-profit organization, so far, have proven very promising, providing faster, more accurate information, said Ouellette.

"One of the big challenges today with certain cancers is to find it early. Any time we can find it early we’ve got a better shot at curing the patient … So this is where we feel the most impact of this technology will occur," he said.

"We hope that will continue and we’ll be able to improve upon existing [tests] because there’s some good tests out there that could benefit from more sensitivity and more accuracy, so we’re talking to companies and research centres around the world really to try and bring our technology to theirs and make it to the patient setting."

Ouellette believes it could move quickly because the institute has already done most of the necessary groundwork.

"We’re probably talking a matter of a couple of years, at the most," he said.

The R3 Gala will be held at the Fredericton Convention Centre on March 20.