New Approach to Disease Detection

June 19, 2017

The accurate detection of tissue damage holds the potential to transform medicine through earlier detection of disease, assessment of disease progression, and real time evaluation of treatment. Dr. Mostoslavsky of the Cancer Center at Massachusetts General Hospital and his lab are researching the connection between tissue damage and disease progression through the study of DNA. This new method has the potential to be applied to earlier detection of multiple types of cancer, type 1 diabetes, as well as the evaluation of tissue damage following a traumatic brain injury or stroke.

Cells are the basic building blocks of all living things. The death of cells is an indication of tissue damage, and plays a key role in disease development and the understanding of overall health. The accurate detection of cell death holds the potential to transform medicine through earlier detection of disease, assessment of disease progression, and real-time evaluation of treatment.

Raul Mostoslavsky, MD, PhD, a researcher at the Mass General Cancer Center, and his lab are investigating the connection between cell death and disease progression through the study of DNA. For this project, Dr. Mostoslavsky has teamed up with Yuval Dor, PhD, and Benjamin Glaser, MD, both at the Hadassah Medical Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

When a cell dies, it releases fragmented DNA that circulates freely in the blood. This circulating DNA has unique “fingerprints,” characteristics that indicate the origin of the dying cell. This means that analysis of circulating DNA holds the promise to indicate where tissue damage is occurring potentially before it impacts someone’s health.

The research’s focus is to develop a novel technology for the monitoring of cell death in specific tissues through a simple blood test. This new test would be among the first to be able to measure specific cell death in a non-invasive way, and to enable researchers to both identify that cell death occurred and also the site from which it originated.

This method has the potential to be applied to earlier detection of multiple types of cancer, type 1 diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases. It could also be utilized to evaluate tissue damage following a traumatic brain injury or stroke.

Samples from the Partners Biobank are being used in two ways for this research. The first is the examination of cell death events within specific populations to determine patterns of tissue DNA across groups. For example, in a group of aged individuals, a common pattern of tissue DNA might predict biological aging. The second, longer-term goal is to utilize the uniqueness of the Biobank to track patients who develop cancer after they provided their Biobank sample, to determine whether tissue-specific DNA predictors were present before disease presented. The Partners Biobank is integral to this research project because it provides the possibility for both retrospective and prospective research.

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