By Joel Renouf-Cooke.

Researchers from Nottingham University have unveiled the results of a study that claims to be able to detect the onset of breast cancer up to five years before clinical signs appear thanks to a blood test that measures the body’s immune response to tumour cells. However, some cancer experts have said that the claims, which are due to be formally revealed at a conference in Glasgow this week, should be treated with caution. 

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK, with about 1 in 8 women diagnosed with it in their lifetime and in most cases if it’s detected at an early stage there is a good chance of recovery. Currently, the most commonly used method of diagnosing breast cancer is through the use of mammographic screenings, where x-ray images of the breast are taken. However, sometimes even these can fail at detecting some breast cancers, they are also seen by some as an intrusive method and also expose the body to high doses of radiation. The new blood test method could offer women a simple, quick and non-intrusive option in terms of breast cancer screenings. 

The study, which was carried out by researchers at Nottingham University’s School of Medicine focused on a group of chemicals called antigens, these are produced by cancer cells, which in turn trigger an immune response in humans. The presence of these antigens in the blood causes the immune system to start producing auto-antibodies which in turn target and attempt to block the invading antigens.  

 The researchers were interested in discovering whether they were able to detect specific auto-antibodies and whether these had been triggered by antigens from tumour cells, the possible implications of this being the potential for detecting cancer while it is relatively minor and by using no more than a simple blood test. 

The team took blood samples from 90 newly-diagnosed breast cancer patients and compared them to samples taken from a control group of 90 patients without breast cancer. Finally, they screened the samples to see if they could detect the auto-antibodies triggered by tumour antigens. The results of the test show that they were able to correctly identify the presence of breast cancer in 37% of patients as well as being able to show that there was no cancer present in 75% of blood samples from the control group.  

Presenting the research at the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) Conference, Ms Daniyah Alfattani, a PhD student in the group, said: “The results of our study showed that breast cancer does induce auto-antibodies against panels of specific tumour-associated antigens. We were able to detect cancer with reasonable accuracy by identifying these autoantibodies in the blood.”  

However, some have argued that although the results are encouraging, it is still too soon to know whether a blood test could be used in the future as an effective screening method. 

“We need to develop and further validate this test,” Ms Alfattani added, “However, these results are encouraging and indicate that it’s possible to detect a signal for early breast cancer. Once we have improved the accuracy of the test, then it opens the possibility of using a simple blood test to improve early detection of the disease.”

Speaking about the claims, Professor Lawrence Young, a molecular oncologist at Warwick University added that: 

“While this is encouraging research, it is too soon to claim this test could be used to screen for early breast cancer. More work is needed to increase the efficiency and sensitivity of cancer detection.”

The Nottingham team are now carrying out an identical study with almost nine times the number of participants as the initial study.  It is hoped that that the new 800 patient-strong study will yield even more accurate results as to the efficacy of blood test cancer screenings. 

“A blood test for early breast cancer detection 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.” 

The researchers estimate that with a fully funded development study, it’s expected that blood tests for breast cancer could become available in under five years. 

There is also hope that similar studies the team are carrying out on pancreatic, colorectal and liver cancers will yield equally encouraging results, with these, as well as lung and breast cancer representing 70 % of all cancers. 

Dr Iain Frame, CEO of NCRI concluded: “The results from this pilot study for a blood test to detect early breast cancer are promising […] we look forward to seeing the results from the larger group of patients that are now being investigated.”

Most women diagnosed with breast cancer are over the age of 50, but younger women can also get breast cancer and in very rare cases men too can be diagnosed. The majority of breast lumps are not cancerous however it’s always best to have them checked by a doctor. If you have any concerns, or would like more information regarding breast cancer make an appointment with your GP or call the NHS helpline by dialling 111.


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