New blood test for the earlier diagnosis of breast cancer spread

UK scientists from the University of Westminster have confirmed that a new blood test can detect if breast cancer has spread to other parts of the body in a research funded by the charity Against Breast Cancer. Results published in the British Journal of Cancer showed that the test distinguished between patients with secondary breast cancer and those who remained disease free for five years after a breast cancer diagnosis.

Researchers analysed the blood of 112 breast cancer patients using samples collected as part of the charity’s DietCompLyf study. They detected higher levels of a protein called ‘cadherin-5’ that had unusual sugars decorating its surface in women who went on to be diagnosed with secondary breast cancer over a year later. This indicates that the sensitivity of current blood tests could be improved upon for earlier diagnosis of secondary disease.

More sensitive, non-invasive tests are required for secondary breast cancer - which occurs when new tumours grow in the bone, liver, lung or brain - to make diagnosis easier and for treatment to begin as early as possible. 

Dr Nicola Winstone, Research Manager at Against Breast Cancer, explains: “We envisage a future where a home test blood or urine kit for secondary breast cancer is available, much like those used to monitor diabetes or for pregnancy testing, and this work takes us a step closer to that goal. More women and men are surviving primary breast cancer than ever before and better monitoring tools are needed not only to detect secondary spread and begin treatment as early as possible, but to also empower survivors of breast cancer by addressing the emotional burden that the threat of secondary spread can cause."

Stevie Webb was only 27 years old when she was diagnosed with an aggressive primary breast cancer that was classified as ‘high-risk of recurrence’. She completed her treatment in 2015 and now lives every day as if it’s her last; she’s just completed a 280km Husky Trail across Norway and Sweden to raise funds for Against Breast Cancer. “You always think about it [breast cancer] without realising” she says, “If I ever feel ill, I feel I’m going to be really ill. I’m more paranoid, whereas I wasn’t before, I was a free spirit and now I worry more.”

Dr Miriam Dwek, Reader and Group Leader of the Breast Cancer Research Unit at the University of Westminster who led the research, says: “This research verified the results of our previous work in a larger group of patients, defining cadherin-5 proteins that display abnormal sugar arrangements as a new biomarker for metastatic, or secondary breast cancer. The blood test worked particularly well at identifying metastasis in a sub-group of patients with oestrogen responsive breast cancers, which make up 70% of all breast cancers diagnosed. We are excited and hope to develop this test further so in the future there will be improved methods for the better monitoring of patients. At the moment the test is not ‘patient ready’ but the initial results are encouraging.”

Secondary breast cancer is difficult to diagnose before symptoms are experienced and occurs in up to a third of breast cancer patients, sometimes many years after seemingly successful treatment for localised, primary cancer that remained in the breast. Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women worldwide and secondary spread claims the lives of around 1000 people a month in the UK.

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