New blood test capable of detecting breast cancer years before symptoms appear

NOTTINGHAM, United Kingdom — Early detection is very important when it comes to treating breast cancer. The sooner the disease is identified, the greater a patient’s prognosis and chances of recovery. With this in mind, a new, simple blood test currently being developed in the United Kingdom may be a significant game changer in the fight against breast cancer. Researchers believe the test will be capable of detecting breast cancer up to five years before any actual clinical signs or symptoms show themselves.

The test works by identifying the body’s natural immune responses to tumor cell-produced substances. Cancer cells produce harmful proteins in the body called tumor-associated antigens. These antigens in turn trigger the immune system to create antibodies to fight the proteins, called autoantibodies. 

Recently, scientists at the University of Nottingham established that these tumor-associated antigens, or (TAAs), can be used as accurate indicators of a developing tumor in its early stages. So, they identified and indexed a group of TAAs that are specifically produced by breast cancer, and designed a blood test that will look to detect these TAAs within samples taken from patients.

To try out the test, researchers collected blood samples from 90 breast cancer patients right around the time they were first diagnosed. Those samples were then compared with 90 other samples taken from patients without breast cancer.

Each sample was scanned rapidly using the latest technology in search of 40 TAAs associated with breast cancer, and 27 other TAAs not currently linked to breast cancer.

“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,” comments Ms. Daniyah Alfattani, a PhD student in the research group, in a release.

Researchers created three different groups of TAAs to look out for within the autoantibodies, and noticed that the groupings containing more TAAs became steadily more accurate at identifying breast cancer. For example, the group that contained only five TAAs correctly detected breast cancer in 29% of samples. Meanwhile, the group containing seven TAAs correctly detected breast cancer in 35% of samples, and the group containing nine TAAs was 37% accurate in identifying breast cancer activity.

“We need to develop and further validate this test,” Ms. Alfattani continues. “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.”

Another trial is already being conducted involving 800 blood samples being tested against a group of nine TAAs. As they continue to refine their research and hold more trials, the research team expect the test’s accuracy to improve. If all goes well, and they have the luxury of a fully-funded development program, the study’s authors estimate the test may be available in clinics worldwide within four to five years.

“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 to current methods, such as mammography,” Ms. Alfattani concludes.

Similar tests intended to identify other types of cancer, such as lung, pancreatic, and liver, are also being developed in the United Kingdom.

This research was presented at the 2019 NRCI Cancer Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

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John Anderer

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