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Estonian study gives hope of detecting cancer in blood samples

Photo credit: Marian Männi
Photo credit: Marian Männi

Estonian researchers are studying the links between antibody immunity and cancer in order to detect the disease early.

If there’s anything the coronavirus taught us all, it’s that our bodies have antibodies to fight with disease. Because people suffer from different diseases to which the body responds differently, antibody profiles are unique, like fingerprints. The entire history of a person’s life and health is written in them.

Jürgen Tuvikene, a data analyst at biotechnology company dxlabs, is researching and analysing these stories to find links between different diseases and antibodies. He could recognise a person from the blood sample by only their antibody profiles if he wanted to.

As each disease leaves a mark, it could help make it possible to prevent health problems at an early stage. But how exactly? That’s the question Tuvikene is trying to find an answer to.

The analyst who started at dxlabs a year ago through the Estonian Research Council’s cross-sectoral mobility support focused on exploring the database of blood samples from around 5000 people on antibody immune response. One of the diseases he is working with/studying in collaboration with the biotechnology company Protobios is cancer. Immunotherapy has become a hot topic in cancer treatment lately. It involves administrating antibody drugs to enforce the person’s own body to fight against cancer.

Unfortunately, immunotherapy only works succssfully for about 10-20 percent of people. We don’t know why yet. We also don’t know who immunotherapy is suitable for and who it isn’t. Since immune system’s activity is linked to antibodies, Estonians wanted to solve this riddle by examining the antibody response.

Led by Kaia Palm, the founder and CEO of Protobios, they published a research paper on the subject in mid-May in the magazine Communications Medicine. In this study they showed that antibody profiles could really give an idea of whether a person has cancer and whether immunotherapy would be suitable therapy for them.

To see how the immune system responds to cancer, they described antibodies that developed after two different types of immunotherapy according to Palm. “However, we also found that some cancer patients had pre-existing antibodies to certain melanoma proteins,“ Tuvikene added.

By further developing on these results, it could be possible to see who immunotherapy would be suitable for and who it wouldn’t. Those who have such pre-existing antibodies or develop them as a result of treatment could continue with immunotherapy. The results should help to detect the disease early and to develop effective medicines.

The role of antibodies in cancer research is still a niche topic

Jürgen Tuvikene’s analysis is based on a method in which a drop of human blood is mixed with billions of different bacterial viruses (phages) displaying short random protein fragments on the surface. These fragments are recognized by antibodies of the human blood. New technology can be used to identify which protein fragments in the blood sample the antibodies bind to. According to Tuvikene, three million protein fragments are described for each person’s blood sample, from which an individual or disease-specific antibody pattern can be deduced.

“This is a huge/vast amount of data,“ stressed Tuvikene, who defended his doctorate at the Institute of Chemistry and Biotechnology at Tallinn University of Technology. “We are looking for repetitive patterns. If a patient has high levels of antibodies recognizing specific protein sequences that are characteristic of the diseased tissue, then we can link the antibodies with specific disease.“

According to the data analyst, the human immune system could handle cancer very well, but cancer has learned to evade it. There is a struggle for survival with the fittest winning out.

Tuvikene believes that science is moving in the direction where it will be possible to detect cancer early. The strength here in Estonia with its small population, lies in our representative gene biobank. Tuvikene believes that bringing together genetic data and information on immune profiles would be a great achievement in disease prevention and treatment. Genes can be used to see what the person is born with, but what is experienced in life can be seen from the antibodies. However, cancer like most diseases are caused by both factors.

“Historically, it was hoped that if we understood genes, we would know everything,” Tuvikene said. “Now we know that the environment also plays a very important role.“ Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have shown that even bad thinking and mood changes can have an effect on inflammatory processes. Inflammation is known as one of the mechanisms behind tumour formation and progression.

According to Tuvikene, bioinformatics is a topic for the future of medicine. He himself is highly motivated by the opportunities to make scientific breakthroughs through the first discoveries in the field. One day these small discoveries and pieces of information will become the answer to saving many lives.

Written by Marian Männi. The translation of this article from Estonian Public Broadcasting science news portal Novaator was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.

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