New test for early breast cancer detection

 UK researchers are developing a test to detect breast cancer up to 5 years before any symptoms become apparent. Their test would be ‘less uncomfortable and more cost effective’ than traditional mammograms. 

The University of Nottingham team noted when cancer is present, it produces antigens (substances that induce an immune response) and the immune system counteracts these by releasing auto-antibodies. 

The team – hypothesising a blood test which screens for certain antibodies could help detect breast cancer early and easily – started developing a test to detect those auto-antibodies in the blood and indicate whether or not breast cancer is present. 

They first developed panels of tumour-associated antigens (TAAs) specific to breast cancer – allowing screening for auto-antigens in blood associated with a response to breast cancer-specific TAAs. 

Researchers then collected blood samples from 90 people with breast cancer and 90 volunteers without cancer (the controls) and looked for auto-antibodies generated against 40 TAAs they already knew were associated with blood cancer and 27 TAAs not known to have a link with this type of cancer. 

Study co-author Daniyah Alfattani, who presented results at the recent UK National Cancer Research Institute conference in Glasgow, confirmed: ‘The results showed breast cancer does induce auto-antibodies against panels of specific TAAs.’ 

She added the team was ‘able to detect cancer with reasonable accuracy by identifying these auto-antibodies in the blood’ and noted ‘this innovative blood test could help specialists detect the presence of breast cancer up to 5 years before any visible symptoms occur’. 

Overall the team developed three panels of TAAs that allowed them to screen for auto-antibodies which respond to them, and noted the more TAAs present in a panel, the more accurate the blood test results. 

  • A panel featuring five TAAs correctly detected breast cancer in 29% of samples from people with cancer and confirmed lac of breast cancer in 84% of control samples. 
  • A panel featuring seven TAAs correctly detected breast cancer in 35% of samples from people with cancer and confirmed lack of breast cancer in 79% of control samples. 
  • A panel containing nine TAAs correctly detected breast cancer in 37% of samples from individuals with cancer and confirmed lack of cancer in 79% of control samples. 

The researchers are now testing blood samples from 800 people with breast cancer against a panel of nine TAAs – hoping it will bring even higher accuracy in test results. 

Alfattani summed up: ‘Once we improve the accuracy of the test, it opens the possibility of using a simple blood test to improve early detection of the disease.’ 

And it ‘would be cost effective, which would be of particular value in low and middle income countries. It would also be an easier screening method to implement compared with current methods, such as mammography.’ 

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