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Home » What If a Simple Blood Test Could Detect Cancer? – Hani Goodarzi (Transcript)

What If a Simple Blood Test Could Detect Cancer? – Hani Goodarzi (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Hani Goodarzi’s talk titled “What If a Simple Blood Test Could Detect Cancer?” at TED conference.

In his talk titled “What If a Simple Blood Test Could Detect Cancer?”, biomedical researcher Hani Goodarzi explores the groundbreaking potential of using RNA, specifically a new class of non-coding RNAs known as oncRNAs, to detect cancer at its earliest stages through a simple blood test. He explains how these oncRNAs, which are unique to cancer cells, can serve as a digital molecular barcode to identify the type or subtype of cancer present in the body.

Goodarzi’s research, bolstered by machine learning and AI, aims to use these barcodes to not only detect the presence of cancer but also to understand its biology more deeply. Through a preliminary study with breast cancer patients, his team has shown promising results in detecting residual disease post-treatment, potentially revolutionizing how cancer is monitored and treated. His talk underscores the potential for this technology to make cancer screening more precise, sensitive, and accessible, marking a significant step forward in the fight against cancer.

Listen to the audio version here:


Catching cancer at its earliest stages, when it’s most treatable, can save countless lives. But the million-dollar question is: in an otherwise healthy body made up of trillions of cells, how can we zero in on a small group of rogue cancer cells? The answer, I think, may be rooted in something that, thanks to the pandemic, we have all come to know quite well, and that is RNA. I think these days, everyone has a basic understanding of how RNA works, again, thanks to the COVID vaccines.

The Role of RNA in Cancer Detection

But basically, RNA is transcribed from DNA in the cell, and messenger RNA specifically serves as a template for protein synthesis. So usually, the more mRNA you have in the cell, the more protein you get. But our discovery is a little bit different.

We have found a new class of RNAs that have changed how we think about cancer detection. These are relatively small RNAs, and they don’t actually code for any protein. So they’re non-coding. And since we found them, we got to name them. We have called them orphan non-coding RNAs or oncRNAs for short.

oncRNAs: A New Frontier in Cancer Science

These oncRNAs have not only changed and transformed our approach to cancer detection from blood non-invasively, but they’ve also helped open a window into the tumor itself for us. So leveraging these RNAs, we are not only detecting cancer earlier, we are actually peering into its biology.

So with that short introduction, let me break down the science for you. As you may know, every cell in our body shares the same genetic code as every other cell. It’s as if our cells have access to the same pantry, but then they use different recipes to mix the same ingredients into different dishes.

It’s actually the diversity in genomic recipes that gives us the more than 200 cell types we have in our bodies, each with their own distinct role and function, like skin cells, for example, or neurons. And as you can imagine, there is a complex machinery in place in the cell that governs this process and tells the cell for each of its 20,000 genes how much of them it needs to express to be a healthy, well-functioning cell.

Now, cancer cells, being the resourceful survivalists that they are, actually hijack components of this machinery to their advantage.

The Discovery of oncRNAs

They do this to increase the expression of genes that will help the tumor grow and spread throughout the body, or silence or down-regulate genes whose job is to keep cancer in check. Another way of putting this is that cancer cells are basically hacking that original genomic recipe that I told you about.

Now, a few years ago, we made an interesting discovery that is actually a consequence of this genomic reprogramming that happens in cancer cells, is actually a hallmark of cancer. Basically, parts of the genome that is normally silent and inactive in healthy cells becomes activated in cancer. And a direct consequence of this activation is the birth of a new kind of RNA.

oncRNAs: Mapping Cancer’s Molecular Barcodes

That we only see these RNAs in cancer, but not really in healthy cells. Now, over the past few years, we have spent a lot of time basically mapping these cancer-emergent RNAs across human cancers. And as I told you earlier, we have come to name them oncRNAs.

Now, what is even more interesting is that which oncRNAs I see in a given sample is not random. It’s actually tied back to the type or subtype of cancer that I’m looking at. So collectively, oncRNAs actually provide a digital molecular barcode that captures cancer cell identity. And it’s actually unique to the type or subtype of cancer.

But how are these molecular barcodes actually useful? So it turns out oncRNAs are not actually confined to cancer cells. Some of them are nicely packaged and released into the blood. And this is something that healthy cells do as well with other small RNAs. And with all of this introduction, I hope you know where I’m going with this. Basically, if oncRNAs are only expressed in cancer cells, and some of them do in fact find their way into the bloodstream, doesn’t it mean that we should be able to detect them in blood samples from cancer patients?

The Promise of oncRNA-based Detection

The answer, turns out, is yes, but with an asterisk. So the oncRNAs that we detect in blood samples from patients actually form a partial barcode. And it’s only a partial barcode because only a subset of oncRNAs are actually secreted from cancer cells into the blood. And even a smaller subset can be reliably detected in a small volume of blood. However, thanks to the magic of machine learning and AI, we can actually use this partial information to reconstruct the original barcode that resides in the tumor. And we can match that deconstruction against our catalog of oncRNA barcodes across cancers.

To not only detect the presence of the disease, but also identify its type or subtype. And actually, as we grow, fundamentally increase the number of these oncRNA catalogs that we have built, we can go deeper and deeper into the biology of the disease as well.

Now, with help from our clinical collaborators at UCSF, we have come a step closer to actually bringing this platform to the clinic. In a preliminary study across 200 breast cancer patients, we have actually shown that we can use oncRNAs to detect residual disease in patients after they have received treatment, and knowing which patients have remaining disease tells clinicians who needs additional treatment or monitoring after the surgery.

And this way, patients receive more treatment only when it’s needed. I truly believe that the next decade is the decade of cancer screening. And as you can imagine, blood detection of cancers is a major frontier in that war. And I hope to have convinced you today that leveraging powerful AI built on top of molecular barcodes of oncRNAs, we can envision a future that’s precise and sensitive, but more importantly, very accessible.

Blood detection of cancers is not just the hope, but it’s actually a reality. Thank you.

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