New UT test detects cancer in hours; decreases need for surgery


AUSTIN (KXAN) — The scenario is a nightmare. You feel a lump in your throat, see a doctor for a biopsy and are advised to get surgery to find out if you have cancer.

You think “better safe than sorry,” so you go through with the surgery.

You worry and wait, then your results come back. They’re negative — a big sigh of relief. But surgery is time and money, and you’re left with a bill and a scar.

That’s what happened to Amanda Helms. She graduated from Texas Tech in 2018.

All of the uncertainty, the waiting… it takes a toll on you.

— Amanda Helms

Doctors took her biopsy halfway through her freshman year. She waited months before being tested.

“When I went to the biopsy…they were like ‘There’s nothing we found that is malignant or indicative of cancer, but we found some a-typical cells,'” Helms said.

Helms faced more uncertainty. She could come in for another biopsy — a fine-needle aspiration, which might yield the same results, or “take it out.”

She chose the latter.

Surgeons removed half of her thyroid. It was no question. Her grandma had thyroid cancer around the same age she was, 19.

Helms waited more months.

“The surgery was a long process,” Helms said. Afterwards, she received good news — no signs of cancer. But her future is forever altered. She is tested every year to check her thyroid hormone levels so they don’t fluctuate and cause abnormalities.

Helms does not regret her decision, but wishes she never needed the surgery.

“If we could find a way to cut down on the time between intital testing and finally getting the results back, it would be great. It would be so beneficial to so many people. So many people have to go through this every year,” Helms said.

University of Texas professor & chemist Livia S. Eberlin granted Helms her wish. She developed a new test which helps detect cancer in hours. It even eliminates the need to forego surgery.

This isn’t Eberlin’s first time developing a new test or method to detect cancer quicker and more precisely. She revolutionized the field of cancer detection technology with the MasSpec Pen in 2017.

The new test uses the same technique: mass spectrometry. It’s one often used in forensics. They are able to gain insight on the molecular composition of cells from a biopsy, specifically metabolites and lipids which indicate if cells are cancerous or not. It is two-thirds more accurate than the fine-needle aspiration test Helms received.

“A doctor looking under a microscope can have a hard time telling if these cells are truly cancer or if they are just benign,” Eberlin said. “So these people end up going to surgery just to know if they even have cancer.”

Eberlin said one in five people have inconclusive results from their biopsies and from those about 80% who have surgery don’t have any cancer at all.

“We have these large amount of surgeries that are completely unnecessary, have devastating consequences for the patients that now have a very important organ removed from their body because of an inconclusive result,” Eberlin said.

Consequences felt in the healthcare system.

“Imagine how much money is being put into these surgical procedures, and all of the next stages of their treatment.”

— Livia S. Eberlin

She hopes her new test prevents all of that.

“We can do this in a couple hours, and so far our tests have been much more accurate in telling the patient if that sample is a normal tissue or a cancer tissue,” Eberlin said.

The end goal is a much more precise diagnosis. Eberlin said it can be transformative for patients. Helms agreed.

“There would have been a lot less worry in my life. I wouldn’t have had to wait months for the surgery, months to find out I’m actually okay. I could’ve heard back in hours,” Helms said. “I wouldn’t have had to think about dropping out of college, restarting my life.”

It was rewarding when Eberlin told Helms about the new test. She shares a personal connection with her through Eberlin’s mentor program.

“She told me that it was a special moment to be able to tell her that we are working on a problem that could have changed her life,” Eberlin said. “Looking forward to the future, I hope to be able to provide a test that can really improve treatment for other patients.”

What’s next?

The test does not have a name nor has been approved by the FDA yet. Eberlin’s team must continue validating methods from more samples to get official approval.

Her team has tested over 100 biopsies so far, but thousands are needed. The next phase is clinical studies focused on multi-centered tests across different institutions.

She said it can be used for other cancers like breast and pancreas where biopsies are used for first diagnosis.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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