Presence of Abnormal Glycoproteins May Help Early Cancer Detection

Antibodies that latch on to abnormal glycoproteins may serve as a new biomarker for early cancer detection, according a recent study conducted at Copenhagen University in Denmark and supported in part by the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

Glycoproteins are a specific class of proteins that are connected to sugar molecules. Within this class of proteins, researchers specifically looked at mucins, a sub-category of glycoproteins that can be found on the outer surface of cells. As has been previously identified, cancer cells display different amounts of mucins within a cell structure. Some cancer mucins have uniquely altered sugar groups that are different from those found on healthy cells.

With this in mind, the Copenhagen team hypothesized that specialized antibodies within the body would target these unique cancer mucins. Antibodies are a type of protein manufactured by the immune system that are designed to detect antigens within the body. By targeting these antigens, antibodies signal an autoimmune response to harmful substances in the body. While many antibodies target foreign substances in the body, some are drawn to an individual’s own molecules and tissue. These antibodies are defined as autoantibodies.

After considerable trial and error, the Copenhagen team successfully identified autoantibodies that were drawn to these glycoproteins.

Armed with the ability to detect the presence of these autoantibodies, the team then screened blood samples from patients who had previously been diagnosed with breast cancer, ovarian cancer and prostate cancer. The results were positive, with detection of the unique antibodies in all three cases. In contrast, these antibodies were not present in control blood samples that did not come from cancer patients.

The study provides a promising new means for identifying cancer in its early stages. However, larger-scale studies are still necessary to validate the results.

Results from the study were reported by head researchers for the Copenhagen team – Hans H. Wandall, M.D., Ph.D. and Ola Blixt, Ph.D. The study was the result of an international collaboration made possible by the trans-NIH Alliance of Glycobiologists for Detection of Cancer and Cancer Risk.