Estonian scientists: Breakthrough in early cancer detection

Dr Tuvikene says that each human blood sample contains millions of protein strands from which antibody patterns can be read off.
Dr Tuvikene says that each human blood sample contains millions of protein strands from which antibody patterns can be read off. Source: Marian Männi

Researchers in Estonia are looking into the relationship between antibodies and cancer, in order to detect them early on.

If the coronavirus pandemic taught a typical person anything, it is that the human body contains antibodies. These immune system workhorses hurry to protect our bodies against diseases as soon as it is infected. As people's immune systems are affected with various diseases and their bodies also react differently, the antibody profiles are unique, like  fingerprints. The whole story of a person's life and health is written in them.

Jürgen Tuvikene, a data analyst at the biotechnology business Dxlabs, collects and analyzes these stories in order to determine the relationship between antibodies and various diseases. For the greater benefit of people, Tuvikene is able to single out a person solely by his or her pattern of antibodies.

As diseases leave marks in our immune systems, those marks could very well be used to prevent problems early on.

The scientist, whose research is funded by the Intersectoral Mobility grant, works at Dxlabs biotech company, where he has accumulated a dataset of about 5,000 blood samples obtained from individuals.

Cancer is one of the diseases he is mapping out in collaboration with the other biotechnology business Protobios. Immunotherapy is currently a trendy issue in cancer treatment. This involves infusing antibodies into a patient or training the patient's own immune system to combat cancer.

Unfortunately, immunotherapy is only effective in 10 to 20 percent of patients. Why this is the case is unknown. It is also not clear why some individuals respond to immune treatment and others don't. As immunity is linked to antibodies, the researches sought to unravel this mystery by focusing their research on the latter.

Led by Protobios founder and CEO Kaia Palm, they published a research article on this subject in the journal Communications Medicine in mid-May. In the article, the scientists showed that the pattern of certain antibodies can really indicate if a person has cancer and whether he or she could benefit from immunotherapy.

Palm said that in order to determine how the immune system responds to skin cancer, they study antibodies that are created after two different methods of immunotherapy. "We discovered that cancer patients have preexisting antibodies against particular melanoma proteins".

As more data will be analyzed, it may become feasible to determine in advance people for whom immunotherapy is a suitable cancer treatment and exclude the others. In this way, only people with already existing antibodies or who respond to treatment with production of antibodies would be advised to continue immunotherapy. This data also helps in early disease detection and the development of treatments.

The role of antibodies in cancer research remains a narrow subject

Tuvikese's analysis is based on a technique that combines a drop of human blood with billions of distinct bacterial viruses with short random protein chains on their surface. These molecules connect with antibodies already existing in human blood. In this way, it becomes possible to identify the protein chains to which antibodies in a blood sample are bound. Each human blood sample contains millions of protein strands from which antibody patterns can be read off.

Tuvikene, who holds a Ph.D. from the Department of Chemistry and Biotechnology at Tallinn University of Technology, stressed: "We are searching for patterns of repetition in this vast amount of data. If the patient has a large number of antibodies that bind to specific protein sequences characteristic of the diseased tissue, then we can establish links between antibodies and a particular disease."

The researcher said, the human immune system should be able to handle cancer quite well, but unfortunately cancer is very clever and has learnt to elude the immune system. It really becomes a survival struggle.

The researcher said that in the near future, scientists will be able to detect cancer early on. Although the population of Estonia is small, the country has build an extensive gene bank. Combining genetic data with immunological profile information would be a significant advance in illness prevention and therapy.

While genes indicate what a person is born with, antibodies indicate what he or she has experienced in life. Both factors are important for the treatment and early prevention of diseases.

"Historically, it is said that if one knew the genes, they knew everything. Now we understand that the environment also has a significant impact". Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have demonstrated that inflammatory processes can even be affected by negative thoughts and emotions. Inflammation itself is now recognized as a process of tumor growth.

Bioinformatics is the future of medicine, said Tuvikene. All these little findings and tidbits of knowledge will come together one day in solutions that will save countless lives.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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