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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The last thing anyone wants to hear from their doctor is a cancer diagnosis. But if the disease — or the potential for the disease — can be detected early, it can make all the difference.

HudsonAlpha’s research team says they have found a non-invasive method to identify patients who have colon polyps, which are a growth of cells on the lining on the colon. Researchers say they discovered an indicator in blood plasma, and this discovery can help develop a blood test to screen for polyps that could become cancerous.

Experts say this “first step” is an important move towards disease detection based on your DNA and replacing current invasive diagnostic methods that can cause discomfort. Researchers hope the discovery goes beyond colon cancer.

“Because of this type of signature that, signature that we discovered in the plasma, we think this could be really useful for other cancers especially, but maybe even diseases like Alzheimer’s disease,” said Rick Myers, President and Science Director of HudsonAlpha.

HudsonAlpha partnered with the University of Alabama at Birmingham for the study. While it may not be ready for patient care just yet, researchers are optimistic that blood-based screening will eventually be an option.

The study was published online last week in Clinical Cancer Research, a publication of the American Association for Cancer Research, HudsonAlpha said.

“A blood test that fulfills the role currently played by colonoscopies would have major positive impacts,” said Brian Roberts, a senior scientist in the Myers Lab at HudsonAlpha and the lead author for the published study. “A lot of people joke about how they’d love to avoid the discomfort of colonoscopies,” he said, “but there’s a serious issue with people not actually getting screened.”

According to the American Cancer Society, of the adults age 50 and older for whom physicians recommend a colonoscopy screening, only about 65 percent comply.

In a release, the institute said Roberts and a group of scientists from four labs across HudsonAlpha studied small RNA – short strands of ribonucleic acid – in blood plasma collected from patients at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Medicine. The sample collection was part of a strong collaboration with Robert Kimberly, MD, and Meredith Fitz-Gerald at the Center for Clinical and Translational Science at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB); and C. Mel Wilcox, MD, director of the Gastroenterology and Hepatology Division in the Department of Medicine at UAB.

RNA is present in all cells, and while its best-known role is to act as a messenger carrying instructions from DNA for making proteins, the RNA types found in this study have diverse and complex functions. The team focused on “cell-free” RNA, found outside of cells in the liquid portion of blood, called plasma. Differences in the amount of certain cell-free RNA molecules identified patients with colorectal adenomas from those without. Colorectal adenomas are the type of colon polyp that can turn into cancer.

The patients in the study were a diverse group, representing nearly equal numbers of men and women mostly over 50 years old, with some younger patients as well. In addition, about 30 percent of the patients were African American, which means the RNA measurement method described in the paper works nearly equally well for men and women of both African and European descent, across a range of ages.

In the short term, these findings won’t affect patient care, according to Richard Myers, PhD. The study was conducted in the Myers Lab at HudsonAlpha, where Myers is president and science director as well as a faculty investigator.

“There’s a lot more work to do before patients might see a test like this at the clinic, but we’re optimistic that with more research and after clinical trials, eventually we will see blood-based screening for colon polyps and colon cancer itself offered routinely to patients,” Myers said.

Moving forward, the group is considering other physical markers that could be measured in blood, such as cell-free DNA, proteins or immune system measurements, that could add to the RNA signature found in their study. They are also looking looking to repeat the study in a larger patient population.

In addition to Roberts and Myers, HudsonAlpha researchers who worked on the study include Andrew Hardigan, Dianna Moore, Ryne Ramaker, Angela Jones, and Greg Cooper, PhD.

Research in this publication is funded by the State of Alabama, the Center for Clinical and Translational Science NIH grant at UAB, and a generous donation from an anonymous private donor.