An atomic force microscopy image of barcoded DNA molecules, rendered in 3D.
An atomic force microscopy image of barcoded DNA molecules, rendered in 3D. (Image courtesy of Jason Reed)

A simple, fast and less-costly approach to diagnosing blood cancers?

A physics professor and Massey Cancer Center researchers are studying the viability of ‘DNA barcoding’ under a grant from the Commonwealth Health Research Board.

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Blood cancers — such as leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma — represent roughly 10 percent of all cancers diagnosed each year in the United States. Yet detecting these cancers can be expensive, complex and time-consuming, and often requires equipment not always available in community hospitals.

A new approach to detecting these cancers, called “DNA barcoding,” is being investigated at Virginia Commonwealth University, and researchers believe it will be as accurate, faster and significantly less costly than existing alternatives.

Jason Reed, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Physics in the College of Humanities and Sciences and a member of the Cancer Molecular Genetics research program at VCU Massey Cancer Center, and his co-investigators at VCU Massey Cancer Center received a $260,000 grant for their project titled “A new approach for detecting IGH translocations in hematologic malignancies,” from the Commonwealth Health Research Board to explore the viability of DNA barcoding for blood cancer diagnosis.

Man standing in front of large computer screen with a depiction of DNA strand displayed.
Jason Reed, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Physics in the College of Humanities and Sciences and a member of the Cancer Molecular Genetics research program at VCU Massey Cancer Center. (File photo)

“We’ve shown that [DNA barcoding] works in certain experimental situations, but this will be one of the first attempts to apply it to a hard problem in molecular diagnostics,” said Reed, the study’s principal investigator. “It’s a nanotechnology-based technique that is new and different. It’s a different way of analyzing these DNA molecules.”

DNA barcoding is a relatively simple approach to detect chromosome rearrangements in blood cancers. It involves extracting individual DNA molecules from a solution, attaching tiny nanoparticles to them and then using nanotechnology to determine if the sample or cell has a certain kind of mutation.

“We’re actually visualizing the mutation in the molecule,” Reed said. “And then that information gets used by the clinician to manage the patient.”

The complexity, and implications for treatment, of blood cancer diagnoses creates a critical need for molecular methods, such as DNA barcoding, which could be applied in less-specialized medical settings such as community hospitals, Reed said. The technology could result in significantly improved health outcomes for patients from underserved populations.

The grant was made possible thanks to preliminary data obtained through a Massey Cancer Center pilot project grant.

Collaborating with Reed on the new study will be VCU co-investigators Colleen Jackson-Cook, Ph.D., a member of the Cancer Molecular Genetics research program at Massey and professor of pathology, human and molecular genetics, and obstetrics and gynecology at the School of Medicine and director of the Molecular Cytogenetic Diagnostic Testing Laboratory in the Division of Molecular Diagnostics; Amir Toor, M.D., a member of the Developmental Therapeutics research program at Massey and professor in the Division of Hematology, Oncology and Palliative Care in the Department of Internal Medicine at the School of Medicine; and Alden Chesney, M.D., associate professor of pathology in the Department of Pathology at the School of Medicine.

“I am delighted to collaborate on this research project to develop a novel assay for the detection of IGH rearrangements in patients with myeloma and other conditions,” Jackson-Cook said. “Recognition of the partner chromosome involved in an IGH rearrangement has emerged as an important prognostic indicator for patients. Moreover, characterization of these rearrangements is important for the clinical management of these patients, including decisions regarding therapy regimens that will yield optimal results with minimal adverse side effects.”

As director of a clinical cytogenetics testing lab, Jackson-Cook sees firsthand the need for an improved assay that is time and cost-efficient.

“While this funded research project focuses on creating a new nanosequencing technique for identifying the multiple types of translocations involving the IGH locus, the methodology that will be optimized has extraordinary potential for use in developing additional tests and could lead to significant improvements in diagnostic testing strategies.”

Chesney also expressed excitement about this novel technique. “Our results to date are quite encouraging and I eagerly look forward to continuing to work with our collaborators in developing DNA nanotechnology for rapid and accurate molecular diagnosis in blood cancers,” he said.

Toor added that DNA barcoding allows an unprecedented level of sensitivity and accuracy when examining DNA mutations involving exchange of genetic material between different chromosomes.

“Not only will this allow accurate initial diagnosis but it will also enable monitoring and detection of previously undetectable disease following therapy,” he said. “The research project funded by the CHRB is just the beginning of the application of this technique, it will eventually see application in the diagnosis and management of solid organ cancers and congenital diseases, which alter chromosomal structure.”

The Commonwealth Health Research Board was created by the General Assembly to support research efforts that have the potential of maximizing human health benefits for Virginia residents, including traditional medical and biomedical research relating to the causes and cures of diseases, as well as research related to health services and the delivery of health care. Since its inception, the board has awarded 215 grants totaling roughly $17.8 million to institutions of higher education and other organizations that conduct health-related research in Virginia.