Detecting prostate cancer with a drop of blood and Gulf War technology

Gulf War technology is making it possible for researchers to detect prostate cancer with a single drop of blood.

Hon Leong, PhD, assistant professor, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, and his team have repurposed a machine once used to detect airborne pathogens in the second Gulf War. The machine is now used for fluid biopsies – a non-invasive way to detect prostate microparticles in the blood in a matter of minutes. Microparticles are essentially garbage released by prostate cells that circulate throughout the bloodstream.

Most men who are more than 40 years old, regardless of their health, have detectable levels of prostate microparticles in their bloodstream. Leong’s research is the first clinical cancer research project to correlate the number of microparticles in the blood to the risk of having prostate cancer – the more microparticles, the higher the risk.

Used in the Gulf War, and more commonly to test water purity, the machine uses flow cytometry to detect microparticles. Flow cytometry measures the specific characteristics of a fluid, such as blood, as it passes through a laser.
Leong’s research provides a more accurate and less invasive testing method for patients suspected of having prostate cancer, and helps to identify patients who are at a higher risk of dying from prostate cancer.

Current methods of detecting prostate cancer, such as the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test and biopsies, have limitations. PSA tests are based on measuring a specific protein released by the prostate gland, but do not provide a definitive diagnosis. A physical exam and biopsy are needed if PSA levels are elevated. However, even the painful biopsy procedure has a 15 per cent error rate. During biopsies, a painful and invasive procedure, 12 needles are inserted into the rectum, with the hope of extracting material from an area with a tumour.

“Our findings point to a new direction in how we can better identify patients who actually have prostate cancer,” said Leong. “With this test, we can improve the clinical outcomes for patients, reducing costs for unnecessary procedures and reducing errors in diagnosis.”