Matt Trau, a professor of chemistry at the University of Queensland, stunned the science world back in December when the prestigious journal Nature Communications published his lab's discovery about a unique property of cancer DNA that could lead to a simple, cheap, and accurate test to detect any type of cancer in under 10 minutes.
No one believed it. I didn't believe it. I thought, "Gosh, okay, maybe it's a fluke."
Trau granted very few interviews in the wake of the news, but he recently opened up to leapsmag about the significance of this promising early research. Here is his story in his own words, as told to Editor-in-Chief Kira Peikoff.
There's been an incredible explosion of knowledge over the past 20 years, particularly since the genome was sequenced. The area of diagnostics has a tremendous amount of promise and has caught our lab's interest. If you catch cancer early, you can improve survival rates to as high as 98 percent, sometimes even now surpassing that.
My lab is interested in devices to improve the trajectory of cancer patients. So, once people get diagnosed, can we get really sophisticated information about the molecular origins of the disease, and can we measure it in real time? And then can we match that with the best treatment and monitor it in real time, too?
I think those approaches, also coupled with immunotherapy, where one dreams of monitoring the immune system simultaneously with the disease progress, will be the future.
But currently, the methodologies for cancer are still pretty old. So, for example, let's talk about biopsies in general. Liquid biopsy just means using a blood test or a urine test, rather than extracting out a piece of solid tissue. Now consider breast cancer. Still, the cutting-edge screening method is mammography or the physical interrogation for lumps. This has had a big impact in terms of early detection and awareness, but it's still primitive compared to interrogating, forensically, blood samples to look at traces of DNA.
Large machines like CAT scans, PET scans, MRIs, are very expensive and very subjective in terms of the operator. They don't look at the root causes of the cancer. Cancer is caused by changes in DNA. These can be changes in the hard drive of the DNA (the genomic changes) or changes in the apps that the DNA are running (the epigenetics and the transcriptomics).
We don't look at that now, even though we have, emerging, all of these technologies to do it, and those technologies are getting so much cheaper. I saw some statistics at a conference just a few months ago that, in the United States, less than 1 percent of cancer patients have their DNA interrogated. That's the current state-of-the-art in the modern medical system.
Professor Matt Trau, a cancer researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia.
Blood, as the highway of the body, is carrying all of this information. Cancer cells, if they are present in the body, are constantly getting turned over. When they die, they release their contents into the blood. Many of these cells end up in the urine and saliva. Having technologies that can forensically scan the highways looking for evidence of cancer is little bit like looking for explosives at the airport. That's very valuable as a security tool.
The trouble is that there are thousands of different types of cancer. Going back to breast cancer, there's at least a dozen different types, probably more, and each of them change the DNA (the hard drive of the disease) and the epigenetics (or the RAM memory). So one of the problems for diagnostics in cancer is to find something that is a signature of all cancers. That's been a really, really, really difficult problem.
Ours was a completely serendipitous discovery. What we found in the lab was this one marker that just kept coming up in all of the types of breast cancers we were studying.
No one believed it. I didn't believe it. I thought, "Gosh, okay, maybe it's a fluke, maybe it works just for breast cancer." So we went on to test it in prostate cancer, which is also many different types of diseases, and it seemed to be working in all of those. We then tested it further in lymphoma. Again, many different types of lymphoma. It worked across all of those. We tested it in gastrointestinal cancer. Again, many different types, and still, it worked, but we were skeptical.
Then we looked at cell lines, which are cells that have come from previous cancer patients, that we grow in the lab, but are used as model experimental systems. We have many of those cell lines, both ones that are cancerous, and ones that are healthy. It was quite remarkable that the marker worked in all of the cancer cell lines and didn't work in the healthy cell lines.
What could possibly be going on?
Well, imagine DNA as a piece of string, that's your hard drive. Epigenetics is like the beads that you put on that string. Those beads you can take on and off as you wish and they control which apps are run, meaning which genetic programs the cell runs. We hypothesized that for cancer, those beads cluster together, rather than being randomly distributed across the string.
Ultimately, I see this as something that would be like a pregnancy test you could take at your doctor's office.
The implications of this are profound. It means that DNA from cancer folds in water into three-dimensional structures that are very different from healthy cells' DNA. It's quite literally the needle in a haystack. Because when you do a liquid biopsy for early detection of cancer, most of the DNA from blood contains a vast abundance of healthy DNA. And that's not of interest. What's of interest is to find the cancerous DNA. That's there only in trace.
Once we figured out what was going on, we could easily set up a system to detect the trace cancerous DNA. It binds to gold nanoparticles in water and changes color. The test takes 10 minutes, and you can detect it by eye. Red indicates cancer and blue doesn't.
We're very, very excited about where we go from here. We're starting to test the test on a greater number of cancers, in thousands of patient samples. We're looking to the scientific community to engage with us, and we're getting a really good response from groups around the world who are supplying more samples to us so we can test this more broadly.
We also are very interested in testing how early can we go with this test. Can we detect cancer through a simple blood test even before there are any symptoms whatsoever? If so, we might be able to convert a cancer diagnosis to something almost as good as a vaccine.
Of course, we have to watch what are called false positives. We don't want to be detecting people as positives when they don't have cancer, and so the technology needs to improve there. We see this version as the iPhone 1. We're interested in the iPhone 2, 3, 4, getting better and better.
Ultimately, I see this as something that would be like a pregnancy test you could take at your doctor's office. If it came back positive, your doctor could say, "Look, there's some news here, but actually, it's not bad news, it's good news. We've caught this so early that we will be able to manage this, and this won't be a problem for you."
If this were to be in routine use in the medical system, countless lives could be saved. Cancer is now becoming one of the biggest killers in the world. We're talking millions upon millions upon millions of people who are affected. This really motivates our work. We might make a difference there.
On the morning of April 12, 1955, newsrooms across the United States inked headlines onto newsprint: the Salk Polio vaccine was "safe, effective, and potent." This was long-awaited news. Americans had limped through decades of fear, unaware of what caused polio or how to cure it, faced with the disease's terrifying, visible power to paralyze and kill, particularly children.
The announcement of the polio vaccine was celebrated with noisy jubilation: church bells rang, factory whistles sounded, people wept in the streets. Within weeks, mass inoculation began as the nation put its faith in a vaccine that would end polio.
Today, most of us are blissfully ignorant of child polio deaths, making it easier to believe that we have not personally benefited from the development of vaccines. According to Dr. Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist and author of the bestselling book Enlightenment Now, we've become blasé to the gifts of science. "The default expectation is not that disease is part of life and science is a godsend, but that health is the default, and any disease is some outrage," he says.
The Rise and Fall of Public Trust<p>When the polio vaccine was released in 1955, "we were nearing an all-time high point in public trust," says Matt Baum, Harvard Kennedy School professor and lead author of <a href="http://www.kateto.net/covid19/COVID19%20CONSORTIUM%20REPORT%2013%20TRUST%20SEP%202020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>several</u></a> <a href="https://shorensteincenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/COVID19-CONSORTIUM-REPORT-14-MISINFO-SEP-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>reports</u></a> measuring public trust and vaccine confidence. Baum explains that the U.S. was experiencing a post-war boom following the Allied triumph in WWII, a popular Roosevelt presidency, and the rapid innovation that elevated the country to an international superpower.</p><p> The 1950s witnessed the emergence of nuclear technology, a space program, and unprecedented medical breakthroughs, adds Emily Brunson, Texas State University anthropologist and co-chair of the Working Group on Readying Populations for COVID-19 Vaccine. "Antibiotics were a game changer," she states. While before, people got sick with pneumonia for a month, suddenly they had access to pills that accelerated recovery. </p><p>During this period, science seemed to hold all the answers; people embraced the idea that we could "come to know the world with an absolute truth," Brunson explains. Doctors were portrayed as unquestioned gods, so Americans were primed to trust experts who told them the polio vaccine was safe. </p>
The Shift in How We Consume Information<p>In the 1950s, the media created an informational consensus. The fundamental ideas the public consumed about the state of the world were unified. "People argued about the best solutions, but didn't fundamentally disagree on the factual baseline," says Baum. Indeed, the messaging around the polio vaccine was centralized and consistent, led by President Roosevelt's successful <a href="https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ978264.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>March of Dimes crusade</u></a>. People of lower socioeconomic status with limited access to this information were <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1551508/?page=3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>less likely to have confidence</u></a> in the vaccine, but most people consumed <a href="https://www.c-span.org/video/?506891-1/a-special-report-polio" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>media that assured them</u></a> of the vaccine's safety and <a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-salk-polio-vaccine-greatest-public-health-experiment-in-history/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>mobilized them</u></a> to receive it. </p><p>Today, the information we consume is no longer centralized—in fact, just the opposite. "When you take that away, it's hard for people to know what to trust and what not to trust," Baum explains. We've witnessed an increase in polarization and the technology that makes it easier to give people what they want to hear, reinforcing the human tendencies to vilify the other side and reinforce our preexisting ideas. When information is engineered to further an agenda, each choice and risk calculation made while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/19/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-science.html?referringSource=articleShare" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>is deeply politicized</u></a>. </p><p>This polarization maps onto a rise in socioeconomic inequality and economic uncertainty. These factors, associated with a sense of lost control, prime people to embrace misinformation, explains Baum, especially when the situation is difficult to comprehend. "The beauty of conspiratorial thinking is that it provides answers to all these questions," he says. Today's insidious fragmentation of news media accelerates the circulation of mis- and disinformation, reaching more people faster, regardless of veracity or motivation. In the case of vaccines, skepticism around their origin, safety, and motivation is intensified. </p><p>Alongside the rise in polarization, Pinker says "the emotional tone of the news has gone downward since the 1940s, and journalists consider it a professional responsibility to cover the negative." Relentless focus on everything that goes wrong further erodes public trust and paints a picture of the world getting worse. "Life saved is not a news story," says Pinker, but perhaps it should be, he continues. "If people were more aware of how much better life was generally, they might be more receptive to improvements that will continue to make life better. These improvements don't happen by themselves."</p>
The Future Depends on Vaccine Confidence<p>So far, the U.S. has been unable to mitigate the catastrophic effects of the pandemic through social distancing, testing, and contact tracing. President Trump has <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/bob-woodward-rage-book-trump/2020/09/09/0368fe3c-efd2-11ea-b4bc-3a2098fc73d4_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>downplayed the effects and threat of the virus</u></a>, <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/07/14/cdc-directors-trump-politics/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>censored experts and scientists</u></a>, <a href="https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/06/america-giving-up-on-pandemic/612796/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>given up on containing the spread</u></a>, and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/16/world/covid-coronavirus.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>mobilized his base to protest masks</u></a>. The Trump Administration failed to devise a national plan, so our national plan has defaulted to hoping for the <a href="https://www.politico.com/news/2020/08/26/nation-of-miracles-pence-coronavirus-vaccine-rnc-402949" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>"miracle" of a vaccine</u></a>. And they are "something of a miracle," Pinker says, describing vaccines as "the most benevolent invention in the history of our species." In record-breaking time, three vaccines have arrived. But their impact will be weakened unless we achieve mass vaccination. As Brunson notes, "The technology isn't the fix; it's people taking the technology."</p><p> Significant challenges remain, including facilitating widespread access and supporting on-the-ground efforts to allay concerns and build trust with <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/african-american-resistance-to-the-covid-19-vaccine-reflects-a-broader-problem" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>specific populations with historic reasons for distrust</u></a>, says Brunson. Baum predicts continuing delays as well as deaths from other causes that will be linked to the vaccine. </p><p> Still, there's every reason for hope. The new administration "has its eyes wide open to these challenges. These are the kind of problems that are amenable to policy solutions if we have the will," Baum says. He forecasts widespread vaccination by late summer and a bounce back from the economic damage, a "Good News Story" that will bolster vaccine acceptance in the future. And Pinker reminds us that science, medicine, and public health have greatly extended our lives in the last few decades, a trend that can only continue if we're willing to roll up our sleeves. </p>
Imagine this scenario: you get an annoying cough and a bit of a fever. When you wake up the next morning you lose your sense of taste and smell. That sounds familiar, so you head to a doctor's office for a Covid test, which comes back positive.
Your next step? An anti-Covid nasal spray of course, a "trickster drug" that will clear the once-dangerous and deadly virus out of the body. The drug works by tricking the coronavirus with decoy receptors that appear to be just like those on the surface of our own cells. The virus latches onto the drug's molecules "thinking" it is breaking into human cells, but instead it flushes out of your system before it can cause any serious damage.
This may sounds like science fiction, but several research groups are already working on such trickster coronavirus drugs, with some candidates close to clinical trials and possibly even becoming available late this year. The teams began working on them when the pandemic arrived, and continued in lockdown.
Biochemist David Baker, pictured in his lab at the University of Washington.