Molecular detectors may refine cancer treatment

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UF chemists develop aptamers to detect subtle leukemia differences.

University of Florida researchers have successfully used molecular probes to detect subtle differences in leukemia cells from patient samples, an achievement that could lead to more effective ways to diagnose and treat cancer.

The strategy, described in a recent issue of Clinical Chemistry, involves engineering short, single strands of DNA or RNA called aptamers to seek out and bind with specific proteins in body fluids.

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UF scientists designed the aptamers to bind to cells and molecules associated with leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow that annually claims about 21,000 lives in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Researchers also found the first evidence that slight molecular differences can exist even within the same samples from patients with adult T-cell leukemia, a cancer that strikes the immune system's own protective cells.

"Our selective aptamers clearly confirm there are several subcategories of adult T-cell leukemia," said Weihong Tan, Ph.D., a UF Research Foundation professor of chemistry at the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences and a member of the UF Shands Cancer Center. "At present, doctors have had only their experience to rely upon to determine the best treatment for these patients. Our findings will give doctors an effective tool to more precisely make a diagnosis and to tailor treatments."

UF researchers built designer probes using cancer cells as a template, capitalizing on the ability of aptamers to fold into well-defined, three-dimensional structures that bind to targets. The process relies on the fact that different types of cells exhibit unique surface features, so aptamers can recognize and bind with these target cells

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