Scientists discover substance in mice that could lead to urine test for liver cancer

Patients currently have the disease diagnosed through surgery, ultrasound scans or blood tests, but a metabolite could change this

Dr Saverio Tardito, of the UK's Beatson Institute for Cancer Research, whose team have discovered a metabolite not identified in mammals before. PA
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The discovery of a substance not identified before in mammals could lead to the world’s first urine test to detect a type of cancer.

Patients currently have liver cancer diagnosed through surgery, ultrasound scans or blood tests.

But a newly discovered metabolite in mice has given hope a urine test could be developed to detect a mutated form of the disease.

A metabolite is a substance made or used when the body breaks down food, drugs or chemicals, or its own tissue - such as fat or muscle tissue.

Saverio Tardito, the lead researcher on the project at Cancer Research UK's Beatson Institute in Glasgow, said the number of people with liver cancer is expected to rise and new tools to detect and treat it earlier are needed.

"We were excited to discover this new metabolite which had never been described before in mammals, which is a good candidate for diagnostic testing as it's specific to a particular type of liver cancer, can be easily detected in urine, and could potentially be used as a marker to monitor the growth of tumours," he said.

The potential for the test was discovered by a team exploring a protein known to be prevalent 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, which is produced by the enzyme.

It appeared in high levels in mice with a specific type of liver tumour and the levels rose as the tumour grew.

The team that discovered the metabolite called N5-methylglutamine also found it appeared in urine when this tumour-promoting mutation of the gene beta-catenin is present, meaning it could be used to identify patients with this specific type of cancer.

Dr Tardito said: "We now plan further studies to investigate how early in liver cancer the metabolite appears, to identify how early a urine test could reliably diagnose the disease."

Every year in the UK there are around 6,200 new liver cancer cases, with around 610 of those in Scotland.

Liver cancer rates are higher than the UK average north of the border, and around a quarter of liver cancer patients have the beta-catenin mutated form of the disease.

Diagnosis of liver cancer is often late, with many patients diagnosed only when already receiving treatment for existing diseases such as cirrhosis or fatty liver disease.

But early, non-invasive testing could help catch the disease earlier, increase the effectiveness of existing treatments and boost development of new therapies.

Updated: December 23, 2022, 10:34 AM
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