Brown Cancer Center Researchers Invent a New Blood Test to Detect Cancer

Turning up the heat may be an oncologist's best bet when screening for cancer, according to a new study from the James Graham Brown Cancer Center’s Nichola Garbett, Ph.D. Her team, including co-inventor of the cervical cancer vaccine, A. Bennett Jenson, M.D., has shown that heating a blood sample to its “melting point” using a method called calorimetry can yield reliable signs of cancer.

According to Dr. Garbett, her results hint at a brand new way of detecting cancer. "We have been able to demonstrate a more convenient, less intrusive test for detecting and staging cancer," she said.

By heating plasma to its melting point, Dr. Garbett’s team is able to produce a so-called differential scanning calorimetry (DSC) thermogram — that is, a type of imprint of the plasma’s behavior under heat. Her studies show that thermograms from cancer patients contain molecular signatures that are not present in healthy samples and that these signatures may be able to be used to detect cancer in the blood.


Aside from illuminating a new method of diagnosis, the findings could also help physicians fine-tune treatment for patients.  “Comparing blood samples of patients who are being screened or treated against those thermograms should enable us to better monitor patients as they are undergoing treatment and follow-up,” she explained. “This will be a chance for us to adjust treatments so they are more effective."  Her work was reported by both the Courier Journal and the BBC and recently recognized by Drs. James Ramsey, Tony Ganzel and Shirley Willihnganz (see adjacent picture).

Dr. Garbett, who is a biophysicist, more recently teamed up with Deputy Director Jason Chesney, a medical oncologist, to examine the performance of DSC thermograms alongside standard PET/CT imaging for the diagnosis, the early detection of recurrences and the assessment of therapeutic efficacy in melanoma.

Based on promising preliminary studies made possible by the James Graham Brown Cancer Center’s Biorepository, Drs. Garbett (Principal Investigator) and Chesney (Co-Investigator) were awarded a $390,000 R21 grant from the National Cancer Institute in Summer 2014 (Plasma DSC for Early Detection of Disease and Therapeutic Efficacy in Melanoma; 1R21CA187345). After the grant was funded, Dr. Chesney said “Dr. Garbett’s innovative blood-based approach to globally detect cancer will allow for early detection of recurrences in melanoma patients which will result in a reduction in the 40,000 deaths attributed to melanoma worldwide.  The National Cancer Institute recognized this and funded Nichola's exciting first-in-human study of DSC thermograms.”