It's also unclear exactly how high the levels of cancer DNA need to be in order for the test to work, which would affect how early in the course of the disease the test could be used, the researchers said. It is based on a unique DNA signature that appears to be common across cancer types.
Trau explained: "It seems to be a general feature for all cancer".
After a series of experiments, the scientists hit on the new test for cancer.
The test was developed after researchers from the University of Queensland found that cancer forms a unique DNA structure when placed in water. The structure is the same in DNA from samples of breast, prostate and bowel cancers, as well as lymphoma.
"The test to detect cancerous cells can be performed in 10 minutes".
"We believe that this simple approach would potentially be a better alternative to the current techniques for cancer detection".
Professor Trau said the next stage of the research was to conduct more clinical testing. They then showed that the patterns had a dramatic impact on the DNA's chemistry, making normal and cancer DNA behave very differently in water.
However, the work is preliminary, and much more research is needed before this test could be useful for patients, outside experts told Live Science.
This alters how DNA can be read, switching genes on or off.
The tiny molecules that decorate DNA, called methyl groups, are altered dramatically by cancer.
It is now hoped the tests, using blood or tissue samples, will be available within ten years.
It spots tiny amounts of DNA floating through vessels that could only have come from tumors and not from healthy cells.
The investigators found that the methylscape of cancer DNA causes DNA fragments to fold up into 3D "nanostructures" that have an affinity for gold.
The technology has also been adapted for electrochemical systems that allow cheap and portable detection that could eventually be performed using a mobile phone.
For this test to work properly the DNA must be pure.
The researchers have tested their technology on about 200 samples from cancer patients and healthy people, finding that the test was up to 90 percent accurate in detecting cancer. Accuracy is important to ensure there are fewer false positives - wrongly detecting cancer when there is none.
"Our technique could be a screening tool to inform clinicians that a patient may have cancer, but they would require subsequent tests with other techniques to identify the cancer type and stage", Carrascosa said. We have not yet tested other cancers, but because the methylation pattern is similar across all cancers it is likely the DNA will respond in the same way. "It's not ideal yet, but it's a promising start".
Although it is far too early to know how useful the discovery could be as a clinical tool, scientists said it was an exciting advance in the understanding of cancer.
Abu Sina, Research Fellow, The University of Queensland; Laura G. Carrascosa, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, The University of Queensland, and Matt Trau, Professor, The University of Queensland.
Chemistry Professor and research associate Matt Trau said, "We certainly don't know yet whether it's the holy grail for all cancer diagnostics, but it looks really interesting as an incredibly simple universal marker for cancer, and as an accessible and affordable technology that doesn't require complicated lab-based equipment like DNA sequencing".