Scientists have discovered a metabolite that has never been found in mammals before, and it could pave the way for a urine test to detect a type of liver cancer for the first time.
There is currently no definitive urine test used to diagnose any type of cancer, and most patients are diagnosed through surgery, ultrasound scans, or blood tests, which often require a trip to a hospital or doctor’s surgery.
But a new urine test may be developed to detect the beta-catenin mutated form of liver cancer after researchers at the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow have found a metabolite in mice.
The project’s principal investigator, Saverio Tardito, said the number of people with liver cancer is expected to increase and new tools are needed to detect and treat cancer earlier.
“We were excited to discover this new metabolite, never previously identified in mammals, that is a good candidate for diagnostic testing because it is specific to a particular type of liver cancer, it can be easily detected in the urine and potentially used as a marker to monitor the growth of tumors,” he said.
The test’s potential was discovered by a team investigating glutamine synthetase, a protein known to be common in liver cancer.
While studying this enzyme in normal liver tissue in mice, the team discovered a new metabolite produced by the enzyme that had not been previously identified in mammals.
It appeared at elevated levels in mice with a specific type of liver tumor, and the levels rose as the tumor grew.
Having discovered the metabolite N5-methylglutamine, the Glasgow team showed that the beta-catenin gene shows up in the urine when this tumor-promoting mutation is present, meaning it could be used to identify patients with this specific type of cancer.
Dr Tardito said: “We are now planning further studies to investigate how early the metabolite appears in liver cancer, to determine how early a urine test can reliably detect the disease.”
There are around 6,200 new cases of liver cancer in the UK each year, of which around 610 are in Scotland.
North of the border, liver cancer rates are higher than the UK average, and around a quarter of liver cancer patients have the beta-catenin mutated form of the disease.
Liver cancer is often diagnosed late, and many patients are diagnosed while undergoing treatment for existing diseases such as cirrhosis or fatty liver disease.
But early, non-invasive testing can help catch the disease earlier, improve the effectiveness of existing treatments, and accelerate the development of new treatments.