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How Close Are We to a Blood Test for Breast Cancer?



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A new U.K. blood test is one of several tests aiming to detect cancer early. Getty Images
  • Researchers are looking at whether we can detect breast cancer via blood test.
  • We're still years away from the test being available to the public.
  • Early stage cancers shed very small amounts of most biomarkers into blood.

There's a new blood test that aims to detect breast cancer. It's one of many attempts to create an effective early detection method.

The test could pinpoint breast cancer up to 5 years before a person shows clinical signs of the disease, according to researchers from the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom.

The test evaluates the body's immune response to the substances tumor cells produce.

Cancer cells make antigens that cause the body to make antibodies known as autoantibodies. The test looks for the presence of autoantibodies against tumor-associated antigens (TAAs).

The team was able to make a panel that looked for autoantibodies against 40 antigens that are known to be associated with breast cancer.

Additionally, they looked at 27 antigens or TAAs that weren't known to be linked with breast cancer.

The research was presented at the 2019 National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) Cancer Conference.

To assess the test, the researchers collected blood samples from 90 people with breast cancer when they received their diagnosis. They then compared those samples with blood samples from 90 people without breast cancer.

“We were able to detect cancer with reasonable accuracy by identifying these autoantibodies in the blood,” Daniyah Alfattani, a PhD student in the group, said, speaking at the conference.

“The results of our study showed that breast cancer does induce autoantibodies against panels of specific tumor-associated antigens,” Alfattani said.

Test accuracy improved in the panels that had more TAAs. A panel of five TAAs correctly detected breast cancer in 29 percent of samples.

Additionally, in the control group, researchers detected 84 percent of people as not having cancer. A panel of seven TAAs found cancer in 35 percent of samples and no cancer in 79 percent. The panel of nine TAAs identified cancer in 37 percent of people with cancer and 79 percent in people without cancer.

The researchers are hoping to improve the accuracy of the test. They hope it can evolve into a test that could offer an easy way to detect the disease in an early stage. Next, they'll test the panel with nine TAAs on 800 people.

If funded and evaluated completely, the test could be available in about 4 to 5 years, the researchers said.

There's been a lot of interest in early cancer detection via blood tests, and more research keeps coming in looking at different approaches, says Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, interim chief medical and scientific officer for the American Cancer Society.

People have known about TAAs for many years. The U.K. test needs more data, but it's an example of taking another approach to try to identify cancer through blood, and told Healthline.

Two interesting aspects of research are that it looked at the body's response to early stage cancer compared to cancer proteins or DNA shed by a tumor.

It also used a panel that looked at different markers instead of just one, explains Muhammed Murtaza, MD, PhD, assistant professor at Mayo Clinic and TGen, a nonprofit research organization.

“These are promising results, but it is still too early to tell how the test will perform across breast cancer subtypes and stages,” Murtaza told Healthline.

Stefan H. Bossmann, PhD, is a distinguished professor at Kansas State University and was part of a team that developed blood test technology that looked at cancer-related enzymes in blood.

He told Healthline about some of the ways to detect cancer in blood. These include looking for circulating tumor DNA or RNA, tumor cells, epigenetic markers, TAAs, and proteases and kinases (enzymes).

Another blood test for breast cancer in testing claims to be able to detect 15 different biomarkers (microRNA and methylation markers) in the blood, metastatic spotting and recurring cancers at an early stage, as well as small tumors.

That test may also be used for long-term monitoring to gauge treatment efficacy and is meant to complement other screening methods. It may be out later this year in European markets, according to reports.

Another blood test for early cancer detection, CancerSEEK, is a liquid biopsy test aimed at detecting multiple types of cancer by looking at circulating DNA. It recently obtained venture capital funding.

Early stage cancers shed very small amounts of most biomarkers into blood, making the pursuit for early detection tests fraught with challenges, Murtaza says.

"There is not a blood test method yet that is used clinically for early detection," said Dr. Natalie Berger, assistant professor at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

"There are multiple subtypes of breast cancer, and to detect these cancers through a blood test may not be a one-size-fits-all approach," Berger said.

Different antigens may be needed to detect hormone receptor-positive breast cancer compared to HER2-positive breast cancer or triple-negative breast cancer, Berger explains.

There are also differences between breast cancer in premenopausal and postmenopausal women as well as differences in people with a familial risk. Those factors may affect the sensitivity and specificity of these tests.

“Imagining is superior at this time, but a blood test may be complementary or even the standard of care in the future,” Berger said.

Another challenge of detecting cancer in blood is being able to detect enough of a cancer indicator, whatever it may be. Tests have to be accurate. They also need to show that they improve outcomes as well, Lichtenfeld says.

He says more data is needed to see whether the U.K. test will be effective at spotting breast cancers early.

“This is an exciting development, but we have to see how it performs in larger studies,” Berger added.

Though there's a blood test for breast cancer that's truly effective and meets the needs of the larger population, developments are moving in that direction, Lichtenfeld says.

“We will get there,” he added.


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