Experts have revealed a simple blood test could spot breast cancer five years before clinical signs appear.
Researchers at Nottingham University’s School of Medicine have made the claim after sampling 180 patients with a focus on chemicals known as antigens — these are produced by cancer cells and trigger an immune response inside humans.
They wanted to know if they could detect the presence of specific auto-antibodies in patients and show whether they had been triggered by antigens from tumour cells.
In a pilot study, researchers compared results from 90 people newly diagnosed with breast cancer to 90 without breast cancer.
According to the Press Association, researchers correctly identified breast cancer in 37 per cent of blood samples taken from affected patients, but they were also able to show there was no cancer in 79 per cent of samples from the control group.
Screening technology was used to find the presence of autoantibodies linked to breast cancer.
Presenting the research at the National Cancer Research Institute’s conference in Glasgow, Scotland, researcher Daniyah Alfattani said: “The results of our study showed that breast cancer does induce autoantibodies against panels of specific tumour-associated antigens. We were able to detect cancer with reasonable accuracy by identifying these autoantibodies in the blood.”
She said while the study needed developing and further validation, the results were “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,” Ms Alfattani said.
Researchers are sampling 800 patients after explaining that larger trials are expected to improve the accuracy of the test — and with sufficient investment, tests could be available in clinics in 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,” Ms Alfattani said. “It would also be an easier screening method to implement compared with current methods, such as mammography,”
Similar methods are being tested for lung cancer, pancreatic, bowel and liver disease, according to the PA.
“A blood test capable of detecting any of these cancers at an early stage is the overriding objective of our work,” Ms Alfattani said.
While the results are “promising”, experts have also expressed caution.
“These are clearly very preliminary data,” Cambridge University cancer epidemiologist Professor Paul Pharoah told The Guardian. “A lot more research would be needed before any claim can be made that this is likely to represent a meaningful advance in the early detection of cancer.”
According to the Cancer Council, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in Australia (apart from non-melanoma skin cancer) and the second most common cancer to cause death in women after lung cancer.
In 2015, 16,852 women and 145 men were diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia. The risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer by age 85 is one in one in eight for women and one in 651 for men.
In 2016, 2976 women and 28 men died of breast cancer in Australia.
In Australia, the overall five-year survival rate for breast cancer in females is 90 per cent.