New methods of medical research have been looking for cancer and other diseases at the molecular level by examining ongoing immune system activity within cells. Abnormal levels of certain compounds or processes may indicate the presence of disease. Here we’ll discuss three tests that measure these levels.

1.       Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are chemically reactive molecules that contain oxygen. They are a byproduct of the metabolism of oxygen and are reactive because they contain unpaired electrons. The role of ROS in the body is to send signals to cells and maintain homeostasis, or a stable cellular environment. An ROS assay is a test to measure the levels of ROS activity within cells. These levels can be lowered by the action of antioxidant enzymes. Too much ROS activity in the cells can be indicators of environmental stress, such as heat or ultraviolet radiation, and can lead to damaged lipids, proteins, and DNA.

2.       Ras, which is short for “rat sarcoma” (the area where these proteins were first discovered), is a proto-oncogene, or a protein that has been the subject of much study for its role in disease. Ras is part of a family called small GTPase, and it is instrumental in transmitting signals within cells. This means that in its active or “switched-on” phase, it stimulates genes that are involved in cell growth, differentiation, and survival. Its mutated form, which is permanently switched on, occurs in the presence of many cancers, including 90 percent of pancreatic cancer cases. Nearly a quarter of all tumors show the presence of active Ras. A Ras activation assay measures the level of Ras in a tissue sample as an indicator that there is a presence of cancerous cells.

3.       Phagocytosis, derived from Greek roots meaning “the process of devouring cells”, is one way that cells rid themselves of bacteria and other unwelcome debris such as dead tissue cells and mineral particles. This process is an instrumental part of the immune system. A phagocytosis assay measures the amount of phagocytotic activity in cells. Elevated numbers may indicate an abnormally high level of pathogens or the presence of other destructive material. This test measures how much of the cellular substrate is being engulfed (phagocytosed), which is how these pathogens are removed.

Recent advances in technology have made all these assays faster and more accurate, leading to vital research on the implications of cell damage. By examining how cells repair themselves and what happens when they fail, doctors can learn ways to boost the effectiveness of these processes and possibly reduce carcinogens and mutagens before they can cause widespread damage.

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