Sugar Molecules Allow for Early Detection of Esophageal Cancer

Posted by Admin on April 9, 2012

Researchers working at the Medical Research Council have found changes in the patterns of sugar molecules that line pre-cancerous cells in the esophagus. The condition is known as Barrett's dysplasia, and these pattern changes make it easier to detect and remove these cells before they have a chance to develop into esophageal cancer. Reported in the journal Nature Medicine, these findings have important clinical implications and may allow physicians to prevent the development of cancer.


Dysplasia is a stage where cancer can be prevented through preemptive removal of problematic cells. However, properly isolating these cells has been difficult; they can be overlooked during endoscopy and biopsy, which only takes samples from a small section of the esophagus. This can result in a sense of false reassurance for patients where their dysplasia has been overlooked. Conversely, those without dysplasia may have to undergo further unnecessary treatments.

The new mechanism for identifying Barrett’s dysplasia cells was discovered by spraying a fluorescent probe that sticks to sugars and lights up any abnormal areas during endoscopy. By carefully analyzing the sugars present in human tissue samples taken from different stages of cancer, researchers found that there were different sugar molecules present on the surface of precancerous cells.

Using microarray technology developed by NYU’s Lara Mahal, the researchers were able to use sugar binding proteins, known as lectins, to identify changes in sugars and locate carbohydrate binding wheat germ proteins as a potential diagnostic. When the wheat germ protein and fluorescent tag were sprayed onto the tissue samples, it displayed decreased binding in the areas of dysplasia, and these cells were clearly visible compared with the glowing green background.

According to lead author, Rebecca Fitzgerald, “The rise in cases of oesophageal cancer both in the UK and throughout the Western world means that it is increasingly important to find ways of detecting it as early as possible. Our work has many potential benefits for those with Barrett's esophagus who have an increased risk of developing esophageal cancer."



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