Turning up the heat may be an oncologist's best bet when screening for cancer, according to a new study from the University of Louisville. Researchers have shown that heating a blood sample to its “melting point” can yield reliable signs of cervical cancer growth. The findings add to the growing number of safe, non-invasive tests for the disease that currently kills thousands of U.S. women every year.

Although recent advancements in oncology have led to the development of a range of potential therapies, cervical cancer remains an exceedingly difficult condition to treat, as it often evades diagnostic tools. For this reason, numerous labs are currently working to identify cancerous biomarkers — diagnostic signatures that indicate tumor growth. The new study, which is published in the journal PLoS One, sought to determine whether extreme heat can help physicians expose these markers.

According to lead author Dr. Nichola Garbett, the results hint at a brand new way of detecting cervical cancer. "We have been able to demonstrate a more convenient, less intrusive test for detecting and staging cervical cancer," he said in a press release. "Additionally, other research has shown that we are able to demonstrate if the current treatment is effective so that clinicians will be able to better tailor care for each patient."

For the study, the researchers focused on blood plasma, the liquid that suspends all the blood cells in your veins. By heating this substance to its melting point, they were able to produce a so-called thermogram — that is, a type of imprint of the plasma’s behavior under heat. Subsequent analyses revealed that thermograms from cervical cancer patients contained molecular signatures that were not present in healthy samples.

Aside from illuminating a new method of diagnosis, the findings could also help physicians fine-tune treatment for patients. “Comparing blood samples of patients who are being screened or treated against those thermograms should enable us to better monitor patients as they are undergoing treatment and follow-up,” he explained. “This will be a chance for us to adjust treatments so they are more effective."

Cervical Cancer Screening in the 2010s

Like cancers of the pancreas and colon, cervical cancer is often associated with poor prognosis, as the tumor growth rapidly spreads to other organs through metastasis. Research efforts like the current paper represent a much-needed move toward new, effective screening protocols capable of identifying these malignancies before it is too late. Another example is the 2013 study from Washington University School of Medicine, in which researchers show that the same 127 mutations drive tumor growth in 12 major types of cancer.

Today, ovarian cancer ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women. According to the American Cancer Society, the risk of developing the disease is about one in 72, and the risk of dying from ovarian cancer is about one in 100. The condition typically develops in older women above the age of 63.

Source: Garbett NC, Merchant ML, Helm CW, Jenson AB, Klein JB, Chaires JB. Detection of Cervical Cancer Biomarker Patterns in Blood Plasma and Urine by Differential Scanning Calorimetry and Mass Spectrometry. PLoS ONE. 2014.