New method requires fewer cells to analyse cancer

SINGAPORE - Researchers in Singapore have devised a new way to better analyse cancer tumours and some parts of the body made up of rare cells, such as germ cells which transform into eggs and sperm.

Their method allows them to "magnify" small populations of cells so doctors and scientists can observe changes in them.

Previously, for example, clinicians might not have been able to analyse parts of cancer tumours which are made up of very few cells.

Mapping chemical changes in cells usually requires at least one million to 10 million of the cells to make up for the loss of DNA as the required proteins are purified during analysis.

The new method, developed by scientists at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's (A*Star) Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS), requires only a few thousands of the cells.

This is sufficient to identify changes caused by chemical compounds which modify the genome and which are known as epigenetic changes.

The new method could lead to a better understanding of diseases such as cancer. It could also help clinicians track the effect of cancer treatment more accurately.

The team's work was published in science journal Developmental Cell on Monday.

GIS principal investigator Shyam Prabhakar said: "(The method) is akin to having a more powerful microscope that provides a more fine-grained view of critical biological processes."

The scientists tested the method successfully on a small number of mouse germ cells, which can transform into the rodents' sperm and eggs.

GIS executive director Ng Huck Hui said recording such DNA changes, a field known as epigenomics, is a new "frontier" in biology research. "While the sequence of the human genome tells us the code for life, it doesn't tell us how this code is utilised."

A*Star has licensed the new technology to a local biotechnology firm, SG Microlab Devices.

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