Wei Zhang, Ph.D.

Signs of life-threatening diabetes complications and liver cancer can be detected in a few drops of blood, according to an international group of scientists.

A new test uses highly sensitive biomarkers to analyze DNA in a three-to-five milliliter blood sample. When a patient with diabetes develops a vascular complication such as heart disease, atherosclerosis or kidney failure, the damaged blood vessels release new DNA into the bloodstream. This appears in the blood test and signals the problem.

About two-thirds of people with diabetes worldwide die from vascular complications. Early detection could help spur treatments that slow or halt developing symptoms, wrote Wei Zhang, Ph.D., of Northwestern University.

“This discovery is going to revolutionize how quickly and non-invasively we can identify potentially fatal complications in the hundreds of millions of diabetic patients worldwide,” Zhang said.

The blood test was used most recently to detect liver cancer in patients and is now being tested in other major cancers, the research team reported. The prototype of the technology was developed by Chuan He, Ph.D., of the University of Chicago

The study was published this week in Clinical Chemistry.