cancer in youngA new method to diagnose rare childhood cancer and which offers an alternative to biopsies has been developed by scientists at the University of Cambridge.

The research, part-funded by Cancer Research UK, means there could be a new, viable alternative when it comes to diagnosing and monitoring germ cell cancer in children. Germ cells are cells that form sperm and egg cells, but can in very rare cases develop into tumours – usually in the testes or ovaries, but occasionally elsewhere.

“Although relatively rare, childhood germ cell tumours need to be diagnosed accurately and followed up carefully to give us the best chances of treating them," says Professor Nick Coleman from the Department of Pathology, University of Cambridge, who worked on the study.

“At the moment, we are not good enough at diagnosing these tumours and monitoring their treatment: we need better, safer and more cost-effective tests."

The new method takes samples of blood and cerebrospinal fluid and analyses them for tiny fragments of genetic information called microRNAs – often found in higher levels in malignant germ cell tumours.

The researchers used samples from 25 patients to develop the new system, which they say will now be developed further to try to realise its potential.

Dr James Nicholson, Cancer Research UK’s children’s cancer expert and one of the authors of the study, said: “While [this method] is unlikely to be used as an early diagnosis tool, it has the potential to monitor treatment as well as track for possible relapse. It might also be used instead of biopsies in hard-to-reach places, such as the brain or chest.”

High-risk malignant germ cell tumours often have low survival - so the findings of the report, published in the British Journal of Cancer, carry hope for an accurate, low-cost and non-invasive diagnostic tool.

However, the method still needs to be tested in a robust clinical trial before it can be considered for use as a test to monitor for relapse, or to be used instead of biopsies for dangerous or hard-to-reach tumours, Dr Nicholson warned.

The news coincides with today’s announcement that many cancers are due to lifestyle factors, and that only a small percentage – between 10-30% - are caused by anomalous mutations to cells. These findings were published in the journal Nature.