Annual mammograms give doctors the best chance at detecting breast cancer in its early stages when it can be treated and may be cured, according to The National Cancer Institute. And now scientists are developing a new breast cancer screening in the form of a blood test that may be able to detect breast cancer five years before the presentation of clinical symptoms.
Researchers at the University of Nottingham used the presence of tumor-associated antigens (TAAs), proteins produced by cancer cells, and their resulting autoantibodies (antibodies produced by the immune system) to detect cancer in humans. In the pilot study, researchers took blood samples from 90 breast cancer patients when they were diagnosed with breast cancer before matching them with blood samples taken from 90 patients without breast cancer. Then, they tested the blood samples for the presence of autoantibodies and 40 TAAs associated with breast cancer (along with 27 TAAs that were not known to be linked with the disease).
"The results of our study showed that breast cancer does induce autoantibodies against panels of specific tumor-associated antigens. We were able to detect cancer with reasonable accuracy by identifying these autoantibodies in the blood," said Daniyah Alfattani, a PhD student, at the National Cancer Research Institute Conference. The research suggests that in the future future breast cancer could be detected and treated earlier, but according to Constance Chen, MD, a board certified plastic surgeon who specializes in breast reconstruction, the blood test's wide availability is far off.
"This blood test sounds promising but is not ready for general use," she says. "The test only detected breast cancer in 29 to 37 percent of known cancer patients, which means most breast cancer would not be correctly identified at this time. Thus, if somebody relied on this blood test at this time they may feel a false sense of relief because it would currently miss most breast cancers."
Researchers have already started to put more science behind mammogram alternatives. For example, a very similar study of 12,000 people in Scotland is now underway to see how a similar autoantibody blood test could detect lung cancer.
If and when future research brings proves the validity of the autoantibody blood test, Dr. Chen says it could alert people to the possibility of early stage breast cancer before it would be detectable by a mammogram. "Alternatively, patients who cannot or do not want to undergo a mammogram would have another option to screen for breast cancer," she says. "The potential benefits of discovering cancer this early is that hopefully it is treated before the cancer spreads in the lymphovascular system, thus increasing survival. It could also change treatment by decreasing the need for more extensive treatment if the cancer is caught earlier."
Considering cancer remains the second leading cause of death in the United States, scientific breakthroughs are primed to save thousands of lives. "Early diagnosis using simple, non-invasive ways of detecting the first signs of cancer is a key strategic priority for NCRI," says Iain Frame, CEO of the National Cancer Research Institute, "and something we'd all like to see working in practice."
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