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Breakthrough: Israeli researchers develop simple blood test that could replace invasive biopsies

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According to Hebrew University’s Prof. Nir Friedman and Dr. Ronen Sadeh, the test is ‘extremely accurate, the test can report on the exact state and location of the disease without the need for invasive and painful biopsies.’

By ILANIT CHERNICK

Invasive biopsies for several illnesses could become a thing of the past thanks to a team of Israeli researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The researchers have developed a new blood test, which has the potential to diagnose a wide array of diseases including cancers, liver diseases and immune disorders, among others.

According to Prof. Nir Friedman and Dr. Ronen Sadeh of the university’s Life Sciences Institute and School of Computer Engineering, the test is “extremely accurate, the test can report on the exact state and location of the disease without the need for invasive and painful biopsies.”

The team’s research shows how a wide range of diseases can be detected through a simple blood test. 

“The test allows lab technicians to identify and determine the state of the dead cells throughout the body and thus diagnose various diseases including cancers and diseases of the heart and liver,” Sadeh and Friedman said. 

The test, they said, can even identify specific markers, which may differ between patients suffering from the same types of tumorous growths, “a feature that has the potential to help physicians develop personalized treatments for individual patients.”

Currently, when medical practitioners need to diagnose certain cancers or diseases, a biopsy is done. During a biopsy, a sample of tissue is extracted for analysis, and although its a common procedure, biopsies can be painful as they are invasive and sometimes they don’t extract the diseased tissue.
Additionally, the team said, biopsies “can only be used in a sufficiently advanced disease stage, making it, in some cases, too late for intervention.” 

It was these concerns that inspired Friedman and Sadeh to look into less invasive and more accurate options for diagnoses, which would also be less expensive for patients.

Discussing how the test blood test works, the researchers said it “relies on a natural process whereby every day millions of cells in our body die and are replaced by new cells.” 

Above Image: Hebrew University Professor, Nir Friedman, working in his lab. (Credit: Hebrew University)
Featured Image: The research team (from l to r) Gavriel Fialkof (PhD student), Dr. Ronen Sadeh, Dr Israa Sharkia, and Prof Nir Friedman. (Credit: Hebrew University)

“When cells die, their DNA is fragmented and some of these DNA fragments reach the blood and can be detected by DNA sequencing methods,” they explained. “However, all our cells have the same DNA sequence, and thus simply sequencing the DNA cannot identify from which cells it originated.” 

“While the DNA sequence is identical between cells, the way the DNA is organized in the cell is substantially different. The DNA is packaged into nucleosomes, small repeating structures that contain specialized proteins called histones,” the scientists said. “On the histone proteins, the cells write a unique chemical code that can tell us the identity of the cell and even the biological and pathological processes that are going on within it.”

“In recent years, numerous studies have successfully developed a process where this information can be identified and thus reveal abnormal cell activity,” they added.

Friedman and Sadeh stressed that this new approach is able to give a precise reading of this information from DNA in the blood and it’s then used to determine the nature of the disease or tumor, “exactly where in the body it’s found and even how far developed it is.”

Friedman pointed out that the approach relies on an analysis of epigenetic information within the cell, a method that has been increasingly fine-tuned in recent years.  

“As a result of these scientific advancements, we understood that if this information is maintained within the DNA structure in the blood, we could use that data to determine the tissue source of dead cells and the genes that were active in those very cells. Based on those findings, we can uncover key details about the patient’s health,” Friedman explains.  “We are able to better understand why the cells died, whether it’s an infection or cancer and based on that be better positioned to determine how the disease is developing.”

For Sadeh, the hope is that this new approach “will allow for earlier diagnosis of disease and help physicians to treat patients more effectively.” 

“Recognizing the potential of this approach and how this technology can be so beneficial for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes, we set up the company Senseera which will be involved with clinical testing in partnership with major pharmaceutical companies with the goal of making this innovative approach available to patients,” he concluded.

The study has just been published in Nature Biotechnology

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