Breast cancer could be detected by a blood test five years before first symptoms

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Breast cancer could be detected up to five years before clinical signs are found in patients. This is thanks to a simple blood test, according to a new study from the University of Nottingham’s School of Medicine. The research, presented at a national cancer conference in Glasgow, claims a blood test can show the body's immune response to antigens, produced by cancer cells.

When someone has cancer, antigens are produced by cancer cells and trigger an immune response inside the human body. It is understood that the presence of antigens in the body provides a good indicator that cancer is present. The cancer cells cause the body to produce ‘auto-antibodies’ that focus on blocking the harmful antigens.

Research from the University of Nottingham’s School of Medicine focused specifically on antigens in their recent study. They wanted to find out if they could detect the presence of specific auto-antibodies and identify whether they had been triggered from tumour cells.

The researchers took blood samples from 180 women, 90 newly diagnosed with breast cancer and 90 without signs of the disease. The results from the breast cancer patients were compared with the ‘control group’ of participants who did not have cancer.

Tests were analysed with the aim of detecting auto-antibodies against the 40 antigens associated with breast cancer tumours, and also against 27 antigens that were not known to be related to the disease.

The researchers successfully identified breast cancer in 37% of blood samples from the affected patients. Crucially, they were also able to demonstrate that there was no cancer present in 79% of the control group.

These results are considered encouraging by the researchers, as this study suggests it will be possible to detect early stages of breast cancer via blood test. Researchers however recognise that further work is needed to develop and validate the testing process. The Nottingham team is now testing samples from 800 patients and expect the accuracy of the test to improve with these larger numbers of participants.

According to Daniyah Alfattani, a doctoral student in the Nottingham research group, the blood test would be a non-invasive test, much cheaper and easier to implement compared to current methods of breast cancer prevention.

The researchers estimate that, with a fully funded development programme, this test may become available in around four or five years.

Further research is currently in development at the University of Nottingham’s  Centre of Excellence for Autoimmunity in Cancer (CEAC) to decipher if similar tests can be carried out to detect the early signs of lung, pancreatic, bowel and liver cancer tumours. 

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