Life Wellbeing How a blood test could detect breast cancer early

How a blood test could detect breast cancer early

Liquid biopsies
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Researchers have discovered a new, non-invasive test that could detect breast cancer much earlier than currently-popular mammograms and breast exams.

With survival rates for breast cancer caught early sitting at around 90 per cent, anything doctors can do for early detection is infinitely valuable.

Currently, women with breast cancer are given routine breast examinations and mammograms to check if their cancer has returned, but a new kind of blood test – called a ‘liquid biopsy’ – could put an end to lengthy and invasive procedures.

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Liquid biopsies could prove faster than mammograms at detecting breast cancer. Photo: Getty

A liquid biopsy refers to testing a sample of blood either for circulating tumour cells or for tiny bits of the tumour genetic code (DNA) which have been released into the blood by degenerating cancer cells.

Professor Rik Thompson, National Breast Cancer Foundation researcher at Queensland University of Technology, said the test  – currently still in the trial stage – could detect cancer before a patient displays any other symptoms.

Along with Professor Christobel Saunders, surgeon at the University of Western Australia and Royal Perth, Professor Thompson is excited at the prospect of using liquid biopsies not only to treat but to detect breast cancer.

“We have reasons to believe [liquid biopsies] could be quicker than waiting for symptoms to appear, or something that shows up on a bone scan or a CT scan,” Professor Thompson told The New Daily.

“This would show up sooner, allowing us to treat earlier or to change treatment if its clear the tumour isn’t responding to the current treatment.”

Professor Thompson said there were currently around 30 clinical trials going on worldwide, including an ongoing French study that he hopes will prove detecting tumour cells early can save lives.

Women in Super Mother’s Day Classic is the biggest funder of National Breast Cancer Foundation research. Photo: MDC
Women in Super Mother’s Day Classic is the biggest funder of National Breast Cancer Foundation research. Photo: MDC

Currently, the test is thought to be most useful for women who have had breast cancer in the past, as part of their ongoing check-ups to see if their cancer has returned, or isn’t going away.

For breast cancer patients, the test will hopefully help detect whether breast cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the lungs, brains and bones, before it would show up on x-ray – something that unfortunately often leads to death.

“At this point of time I don’t think we can use it to screen for cancer routinely, but more for people who have had cancer to monitor what’s going on,” he said.

But Professor Thompson said tests for the regular population are a possibility once detection becomes more sensitive.

“There’s a lot of optimism and a lot of interest”, he said of the test, which he predicts will be available to the public in the next two to five years.

“I would love to say we’ll see it in two years – and it’s likely we will. But I don’t think it will be used widely for another five years.”

For such an exciting test, it’s hard not to wonder why researchers can’t rush the trial period and have it on the market sooner rather than later.

“We need to know that there’s a real benefit first,” said Professor Thompson.

Unfortunately, the only completed research on survival rates after liquid biopsy detection failed to show any clear improvement, but Professor Thompson said the trial would be the first of many.

The New Daily is a media partner of the Women in Super Mother’s Day Classic, which takes place in 100 locations around Australia on Sunday May 8, raising money for the National Breast Cancer Foundation to help fund breast cancer research.


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