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ASU Biodesign Institute researches use of biomarkers to detect cancer

In 1977, social work freshman Mark Ledingham was diagnosed with brain cancer.

“They detected Meningioma in my brain,” he said. “I had symptoms throughout my youth before they could figure out what was wrong with me."

Ledingham said he remembers being very sickly as a child with chronic headaches and that he used to put his head under a space heater to relieve some of the pain.

“Doctors thought I was faking it at first,” he said. “It wasn’t until I was taken to the hospital at the University of Kentucky when they found the tumor in my brain."

Ledingham underwent three brain surgeries, and after the tumor was removed, he had to relearn everything and was left legally blind.

He was diagnosed before technologies to detect early systems of cancer were available.

Today, researchers from the Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics at the Biodesign Institute at ASU are conducting research to test different kinds of biomarkers that can detect early signs of cancer.

The research team has focused most of its inquiry on breast cancer, ovarian cancer and HPV. The team members are also working on testing liver cancer and brain cancer, which are still in early stages of research.

Professors Joshua LaBaer and Karen Anderson directed the research.

LaBaer said biomarkers are any kind of biometric measurement used to indicate something about an individual.

“They are able to detect a disease before any signs of symptoms," he said. “There are a lot of different measures that need to be taken with a certain degree of certainty.”

Lendingham said he is happy there is now something that can be done to find early signs of cancer.

“That may stop certain cancers from growing and developing into something serious,” he said.

There are many kinds of biomarkers and can be classified as anything that measures health or illness. Some examples are blood tests or a prostate-specific antigen.

Provista Diagnostics, Inc., a leading molecular diagnostics company, has licensed this research and will potentially further the development.

Before making these technologies available to the general population, they must first conquer two concerns: false negatives and false positives.

False negatives occur when a person clearly has an illness but the biomarker cannot detect any signs of abnormality. False positives occur when a biomarker detects false signs of cancer in a patient.

LaBaer said although it is relieving for patients to discover they don’t have cancer, it isn’t worth the anxiety beforehand.

“It also puts a lot of stress on the health care system,” he said. “Cancer treatment is extremely costly, and it is very important to rule out any false cases."

Early detection of cancer can significantly improve treatment outcomes, as well as survivability of the patient.

LaBaer said when it comes to tackling cancer, early detection is important.

“Symptoms are different from biomarkers in that the patient can notice symptoms,” he said. “Typically, once symptoms become evident, the cancer has reached a serious stage."

Ledingham said he suffered from symptoms throughout his youth. Back then, technology wasn’t advanced enough to detect what was wrong with him.

“I used to go through spells of sickness, and my fingers would go numb,” he said. “I was told I just had the flu, but the illnesses were so chronic.”

Ledingham said he is happy the University is conducting this research, as it will help others like himself.

Political science senior Chrisanne Gultz said she has had family members who have suffered from cancer, and it has personally affected her.

"I think it is great that they are finding more ways to detect it early on," she said. "I think it will be more beneficial to families who are personally affected as well as save more lives."

According to theNational Cancer Institute, more than 500,000 people die every year from cancer. Efforts to conquer cancer have significantly improved, yet the battle still carries on.

Reach the reporter at or follow her on Twitter @KelcieGrega

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