Scientists have discovered a metabolite never before seen in mammals that could pave the way for a urine test to detect a form of liver cancer for the first time.
Currently, there is no definitive urine test used to diagnose any type of cancer, with most patients diagnosed through surgery, ultrasound, or blood tests, which usually require a trip to a hospital or doctor’s office.
But a new urine test could be developed to detect the beta-catenin-mutated form of liver cancer after researchers at the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow found a metabolite in mice.
Dr. Saverio Tardito, lead researcher on the project, said the number of people with liver cancer is expected to rise and new tools are needed to detect and treat it earlier.
‘We were excited to discover this novel metabolite that had never been described in mammals before. It is a good candidate for diagnostic testing because it is specific to a certain type of liver cancer, can be easily detected in the urine and could potentially be used as a marker to monitor tumor growth,” he said.
The potential for the test was discovered by a team investigating a protein known to be common in liver cancer: glutamine synthetase.
While studying this enzyme in normal liver tissue in mice, the team discovered a new metabolite not previously identified in mammals that is produced by the enzyme.
It appeared in high levels in mice with a specific type of liver tumor, and levels rose as the tumor grew.
The Glasgow team that discovered the metabolite, called N5-methylglutamine, also showed that it appeared in the urine when this tumour-promoting mutation of the beta-catenin gene is present, meaning it could be used to treat patients with this particular type identify cancer.
Dr. Tardito said: ‘We are now planning further studies to investigate how early in liver cancer the metabolite appears, to determine how early a urine test can reliably diagnose the disease.’
There are around 6,200 new cases of liver cancer in the UK each year, with around 610 in Scotland. North of the border, liver cancer rates are higher than the UK average and about a quarter of liver cancer patients have the beta-catin mutated form of the disease.
Liver cancer is often diagnosed late, with many patients not diagnosed until they are already being treated for existing diseases such as cirrhosis or fatty liver.
But early, non-invasive testing can help catch the disease earlier, boost the effectiveness of existing treatments and spur the development of new therapies.
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