Chilean researchers discover new way to detect cancer

New tests developed by scientists in Chile could help avoid expensive surgeries for thyroid cancer screening.


A new breakthrough at Universidad Católica in Santiago could mean big things for thousands of people each year. The team of scientists and researchers has established a genetic test that can determine whether or not a nodule on the thyroid gland is cancerous or benign, saving patients both time and money.

«We have developed a ‘gene signature’ that effectively identifies benign thyroid nodules,» Hernan Gonzalez, MD, PhD, and professor at the Universidad Católica who led the study, told Science Daily.

Doctors are unsure exactly why nodules form on the thyroid gland, responsible for regulating the metabolism among other things. These nodules are common and usually benign, but a small percentage are cancerous, making screening for this very important. According to estimates from the American Cancer Society, there will be more than 60,000 diagnosed cases of thyroid cancer and about 1,850 related deaths in the United States alone next year. Thyroid cancer is curable, as long as it is detected.

The typical way to screen for thyroid cancer is through a biopsy of the nodule and then looking for cancer cells in the sample. However, 20-25 percent of these tests are inconclusive, meaning more invasive tests are needed to rule out cancer. Of these inconclusive cases, though, only about one quarter are ultimately found to be cancerous. This extended process is not only painful and expensive for the patient, but also can put excessive, and often unnecessary stress on the individual.

The new genetic test currently has 96 percent accuracy in detecting benign tumors, meaning that considerable additional cost and suffering can be avoided for thousands of patients.

«For the general public, this is important since it will offer a diagnostic tool that will avoid thousands of surgeries, with a major impact in health costs, eliminating potential surgical complications and the need for permanent thyroid hormone supplementation,» Gonzalez said. «In addition, it should be widely available to local labs and hospitals and at a reasonable cost for the health system.»

To develop this genetic test, the scientists did extensive research, searching for the genes that are associated with thyroid cancer. They then used these markers to create a computer program that can identify them in samples from the patients.

The Chilean research team presented this innovative screening process at the Endocrine Society’s 95th Annual Meeting in San Francisco last month. Their work was supported by the Chilean Economic Development Agency (CORFO).