Queen’s researcher develops new blood test for earlier cancer detection and optimization of treatment

June 17, 2021 – A team of researchers at Queen’s University, led by Dr. Christopher Mueller (Queen’s Cancer Research Institute), have developed a new, cost effective cancer detection and characterization method based on the presence of circulating tumour DNA in the blood called mDETECT (methylation DETEction of Circulating Tumour DNA).

Using a liquid biopsy (a blood test), the team has developed a method that is a more sensitive means of detecting and monitoring the presence of cancer. This innovation was recently published in Nature Precision Oncology based on their study examining women with metastatic breast cancer, specifically Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC) who are undergoing active therapy for their disease.

"This paper looked at women with metastatic breast cancer who are undergoing active therapy for their disease," says Dr. Christopher Mueller, lead author of the study, Principal Investigator in Division of Cancer Biology and Genetics, Queen’s Cancer Research Institute and Professor of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences and Pathology and Molecular Medicine at Queen’s University.

"TNBC is often resistant to specific chemotherapeutic agents but determining if the drugs are working can often take months to find out. Having a test like mDETECT available means that the response to chemotherapy can be determined in real time allowing for therapy to be optimized as much as possible. It will also allow for the early detection of relapse as the results of therapy are much better if the disease is caught earlier."

The mDETECT test allows for real time monitoring of a patient’s response to chemotherapy to optimize the treatment. It also supports the early detection of relapse as the success of therapy is much higher if the disease is caught earlier. For patients with TNBC, which is often resistant to specific chemotherapeutic agents, this test can determine if the treatment is working much faster and more sensitively than conventional methods ensuring the best treatment is being given.

The impact of this innovation could be game-changing in cancer diagnostics. Dr. Mueller and his team have already developed eight mDETECT tests for different cancers, including uveal melanoma, prostate, pancreatic, and lung, the most prevalent cancer diagnosis in 2020. His students are also helping to advance the research, with fourth year undergraduate and graduate students having developed many of the mDETECT assays through their own research projects. Dr. Mueller hopes to continue his research on list of lethal cancers and to include all types of breast cancer, as well as make the test even more sensitive allowing for earlier detection.

"We have also developed an mDETECT assay for the other forms of breast cancer and the hope is that we will be able to combine these into a screening test for the earlier detection of all forms of breast cancer," says Dr. Mueller.  "The earlier a cancer is detected the better the outcome as the cancer has had less time to spread and is easier to treat. This could replace mammography as a screening tool and would be of particular advantage for women with dense breasts where mammography is less effective."

Through Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation (QPI), Dr. Mueller is working to license this healthcare innovation so it can be put into practice, with the added benefit of it being an economical alternative to current methods. There are several large corporate players in this field, with the largest company, GRAIL, attracting over $2 billion in funding. 

The project began while Dr. Mueller was on sabbatical in 2014 and 2016 at the Curie Institute in France with its Circulating Biomarkers group. Following funding from the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute, Dr. Mueller was able to begin development of the mDETECT test at Queen’s University while using patient blood samples from the Curie Institute.

Kingston was also the location of his control group for the study. Funding from Breast Cancer Action Kingston (BCAK) allowed for the recruitment of 100 local women, who did not have cancer, to donate their blood and help determine the validity and usefulness of the test.

"As advocates for a group of breast cancer patients and survivors, Breast Cancer Action Kingston is proud to have been an essential part of this research," says Lynne Funnel, President of Breast Cancer Action Kingston. "We welcome any and all research that leads to the early detection and subsequent early treatment of breast cancer."

To learn more about the mDETECT test, visit Nature Precision Oncology.