An unexpected discovery by a University of New England scientist – working outside of his normal field of study – could eventually lead to early detection of some of the most aggressive and deadly breast cancers.

Srinidi Mohan, assistant professor of pharmacy at UNE, said he had never studied breast cancer before he stumbled across how a molecule could be used to detect the cancers.

The cancers – estrogen negative and triple negative breast cancer – are often a death sentence when discovered, because they are almost never detected early, Mohan said.

Mohan, 37, now has a patent pending on his research and said he is on the verge of a breakthrough that could produce a simple blood test to detect the breast cancers.

The discovery was an accident, Mohan said. He had been studying nutritional supplements when he came across the molecule that may lead to early detection.

Mohan had never previously studied breast cancer, but he said the results are promising. The research is still in the early stages and needs to go through clinical trials, further work on the patent and development of a testing kit.

There are about 50,000 to 60,000 new cases of the aggressive breast cancers per year in the United States, according to the American Breast Cancer Foundation. Young women and African-Americans are most at risk for the hard-to-detect cancers.

Dr. Marc Hurlbert, chief mission officer for the New York-based Breast Cancer Research Foundation, said that while he wasn’t aware of Mohan’s research, scientists are developing blood tests that could help find the cancers.

“We still have a ways to go, but the outlook for early detection and treatment of these cancers is promising,” Hurlbert said. “Within 10 years, we should have better early detection and targeted treatments.”

Hurlbert said some of the most promising early detection methods involve detecting the DNA of tumors found in the bloodstream, or detecting the tumor cells themselves in the bloodstream. The Breast Cancer Research Foundation is spending $57 million on all forms of breast cancer research.

Mohan’s approach is to detect the presence of a molecule in plasma by using a blood test.

Mohan said the discovery began one day in late fall 2014 when he was studying the side effects of a nutritional supplement – the L-Arginine amino acid. L-Arginine is often found in amino acids sold in drugstores as nutritional supplements favored by athletes for strength and boosting the immune system.

During his research, he noticed the relationship between the molecule, a modified form of the L-Arginine amino acid, and estrogen negative breast cancer. It was Mohan’s first “eureka” moment.

“No one had ever connected the dots. Sometimes you get a spark and you can’t explain why you got that spark. I was in the right place at the right time. I don’t know why,” Mohan said, shrugging his shoulders.

But Mohan said he didn’t get too excited.

“I moved on. I’m always thinking ‘What is the next step?’ ” said Mohan, who moved to the United States from India when he was 23. He received his doctorate from Mississippi State University and a post-doctorate degree from the University of Buffalo before moving to Maine five years ago.

Mohan said he needed to prove what he was seeing, and for two months immersed himself in scientific literature. He first proved his hypothesis on one cell line in May 2015. Three months later, he was able to replicate the results by testing dozens of cell lines with African-Americans and Caucasians.

Later, he tested the plasma of Jews, Asians and Hispanics, and all the results were consistent, he said.

Mohan was testing to see whether the molecule – also known as a biological marker – would be found in low numbers in the plasma of patients with estrogen negative breast cancer. In every case, the marker was consistent with his hypotheses that low levels of the molecule would indicate the presence of breast cancer, he said.

Mohan did the research alone, with the help of some students, and the findings were published in the July issue of Amino Acids, a peer-reviewed scientific journal. In September of this year, Mohan received a patent pending from the U.S. Patent Office.

If his work bears fruit, a blood test could be used for millions of women as part of a routine physical examination as soon as five to 10 years from now, Mohan said.

The next step is applying for federal grants, for which UNE is partnering with the Maine Medical Center Research Institute, which is nationally known for its breast cancer research.

Dr. Susan Miesfeldt, a clinician investigator at the MMC institute, said the institute collaborates with other researchers in a “range of studies” including promising cancer research such as Mohan’s.

“Based on results of ongoing studies, (Mohan’s) work may result in the early detection and personalized management of breast cancer,” Miesfeldt said in an email response to questions.

If all goes well, within a few years a clinical trial could be launched, which would be a multimillion-dollar endeavor and attract government research dollars, Mohan said.

Knowing that his test could possibly save thousands of lives one day keeps him focused on research.

“I am a faithful person,” Mohan said. “I think about this every day. I have a purpose in my life.”

This story was corrected at 9:30 p.m. Dec. 6 to show that Srinidi Mohan received his doctorate from Mississippi State University and a post-doctorate degree from the University of Buffalo.

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