The American Cancer Society notes that detecting breast cancer early can lead to better outcomes, but current methods to detect cancer at its earliest stages can be invasive, uncomfortable and inaccurate. This is why a pair of researchers from Missouri University of Science and Technology and Phelps Health are teaming up to develop a urine test to determine whether a patient may be at increased risk of having breast cancer. 

The project is part of a two-year study funded by National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute with a $150,000 grant. The researchers previously found that certain metabolites called pteridines have elevated levels in the urine of cancer patients compared with the general population. This new study aims to explore why these pteridine metabolites are elevated to better understand their potential role as cancer biomarkers. 

“We are working to track pteridine metabolites in increasingly aggressive breast cancer cells in order to determine the changes in the chemical process within the body,” says Dr. Honglan Shi, the research project lead and a research professor of chemistry at Missouri S&T. “Information about these processes can help us understand the role pteridines play in cancer and why their levels are different in cancer patients.”

The researchers have mapped the pteridine metabolic pathways in human breast cell lines using metabolic flux techniques, which allows them to examine how pteridine metabolism changes as a healthy cell becomes cancerous. The researchers will use this information to conduct a clinical trial with the Delbert Day Cancer Institute and Phelps Health to develop pteridine metabolites as new cancer biomarkers that can be inexpensively and noninvasively monitored.

A large part of the study has involved improving how the pteridine metabolites are measured in breast cancer cells due to their trace concentrations in cells. Initial results have suggested that certain pteridines become more prevalent in breast cells as they become more cancerous, while other pteridines may even decrease. 

“There were some early challenges associated with measuring these compounds in breast cancer cells given their trace concentrations,” says Dr. Casey Burton, director of medical research at Phelps Health and an adjunct professor of chemistry at Missouri S&T. “But our students overcame this challenge by adjusting their cell culture and analytical techniques to enable accurate measurements. The project is progressing well, and we are excited to share our findings after all research has concluded.”

Burton says that the study has given the students involved some unique learning experiences. The research project includes two S&T students, graduate student Lindsey K. Rasmussen and undergraduate student Zachary A. Foulks.

Results of the research could lead to better assessments of breast cancer presence and stage. The improved analytical methods developed in this study may also provide other researchers a better way to study the role of pteridines in human disease.