Missouri S&T researchers work to develop simple test for breast cancer

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On May 22, 2020

Dr. Honglan Shi and her students Runmiao Xue and Haiting Zhang conduct drinking water quality research in Schrenk Hall.

Dr. Honglan Shi, right, working with students in a laboratory in Schrenk Hall. Photo by Sam O’Keefe, Missouri S&T.

The American Cancer Society notes that detecting breast cancer early can lead to better outcomes, but current methods to detect cancer at its earliest stages can be invasive, uncomfortable and inaccurate. This is why a pair of researchers from Missouri University of Science and Technology and Phelps Health are teaming up to develop a urine test to determine whether a patient may be at increased risk of having breast cancer.

The project is part of a two-year study funded by National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute with a $150,000 grant. The researchers previously found that certain metabolites called pteridines have elevated levels in the urine of cancer patients compared with the general population. This new study aims to explore why these pteridine metabolites are elevated to better understand their potential role as cancer biomarkers.

“We are working to track pteridine metabolites in increasingly aggressive breast cancer cells in order to determine the changes in the chemical process within the body,” says Dr. Honglan Shi, the research project lead and a research professor of chemistry at Missouri S&T. “Information about these processes can help us understand the role pteridines play in cancer and why their levels are different in cancer patients.”

The researchers have mapped the pteridine metabolic pathways in human breast cell lines using metabolic flux techniques, which allows them to examine how pteridine metabolism changes as a healthy cell becomes cancerous. The researchers will use this information to conduct a clinical trial with the Delbert Day Cancer Institute and Phelps Health to develop pteridine metabolites as new cancer biomarkers that can be inexpensively and noninvasively monitored.

A large part of the study has involved improving how the pteridine metabolites are measured in breast cancer cells due to their trace concentrations in cells. Initial results have suggested that certain pteridines become more prevalent in breast cells as they become more cancerous, while other pteridines may even decrease.

“There were some early challenges associated with measuring these compounds in breast cancer cells given their trace concentrations,” says Dr. Casey Burton, director of medical research at Phelps Health and an adjunct professor of chemistry at Missouri S&T. “But our students overcame this challenge by adjusting their cell culture and analytical techniques to enable accurate measurements. The project is progressing well, and we are excited to share our findings after all research has concluded.”

Burton says that the study has given the students involved some unique learning experiences. The research project includes two S&T students, graduate student Lindsey K. Rasmussen and undergraduate student Zachary A. Foulks.

Results of the research could lead to better assessments of breast cancer presence and stage. The improved analytical methods developed in this study may also provide other researchers a better way to study the role of pteridines in human disease.

About Missouri University of Science and Technology

Founded in 1870 as the University of Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy, Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) is a STEM-focused research university of over 8,000 students and part of the four-campus University of Missouri System. Located in Rolla, Missouri, Missouri S&T offers 99 different degree programs in 40 areas of study, including engineering, the sciences, business and information technology, the humanities, and the liberal arts. Missouri S&T is known globally and is highly ranked for providing a high return on tuition investment, exceptional career opportunities for graduates, and an emphasis on applied, hands-on learning through student design teams and cooperative education and internship opportunities. For more information about Missouri S&T, visit https://www.mst.edu.

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One thought on “Missouri S&T researchers work to develop simple test for breast cancer”

  • David G. Sizemore says:

    Important basic science that should yield excellent results. Not only would this type of test improve the speed of detection especially when combined with mammography (and in some cases genetic testing) could avoid unnecessary biopsies and simultaneously create targeted and personalized treatment program to halt this deadly disease.

    I hope clinical trials get in place and that the end product is a very accurate screening.