‘Tests could predict breast, pancreatic cancer nine years before’
BRITISH scientists believe they have found a way to predict breast cancer nine years before it develops.
In a major breakthrough, they found that measuring levels of a key chemical in the blood of healthy women could predict whether they go on to suffer from the disease later.
The findings could be used to help stop women from developing breast cancer at all, the researchers said.
The study was published in the journal Clinical Cancer Research.
The team from Imperial College London analysed blood samples from around 2,600 women from the United Kingdom (UK), Norway, Australia and Italy, looking at changes to the DNA of white blood cells.
In a series of studies that tracked the women for an average of nine years, they found that those who went on to contract breast cancer had lower levels of a chemical called methyl in their white blood cells’ make-up compared to those who did not.
Methylation – the process by which methyl builds up in our DNA – is essential for the healthy development of cells.
But levels of the chemical can be affected by external factors such as alcohol – which can be controlled.
Therefore if a routine test can be developed from this research, it will allow doctors to suggest lifestyle changes that could stop breast cancer developing.
Being able to predict and prevent cancer is a holy grail for researchers. Breast cancer can be discovered in 80 per cent of cases by mammograms, but at this point a tumour has already grown.
Earlier this year scientists at the University of Copenhagen developed a test that could predict who would get breast cancer around two to five years before it occurred – so a nine-year warning would be a significant improvement.
Meanwhile, experts believe a simple test for one of the deadliest cancers could save hundreds of lives a year.
Researchers in London have identified three proteins which give an early and accurate warning sign of pancreatic cancer. They think the discovery could lead to a cheap and non-invasive urine test to screen people at risk of developing the disease.
Pancreatic cancer is the 11th most common cancer in Britain, with around 9,000 people diagnosed each year.
But it is also one of the most deadly, with only 3 per cent surviving for five years, compared to 87 per cent for breast cancer and 98 per cent for testicular cancer.
The disease causes few symptoms in the early stages, so often goes undetected until the cancer is too advanced to treat.
And even if the warning signs are there they are often missed, because they are easily confused with common ailments.
Doctors call the disease ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing’ because the symptoms – back ache, jaundice and weight loss – are often mistaken for those of indigestion, acid reflux or back strain.
Experts hope that situation could change if their results are replicated in further clinical trials, and an accurate test is developed.
The team at Queen Mary, University of London found that their three-protein ‘signature’ in urine can identify the most common form of pancreatic cancer when still in its early stages – as well as distinguish between cancer and the condition chronic pancreatitis, which can be hard to tell apart.
If it is developed into a urine test for people most at risk of developing the disease, it could trigger early treatment before the cancer advances too far.
Pancreatic cancer has claimed the lives of Patrick Swayze, Luciano Pavarotti, and Apple founder Steve Jobs.
Actor Sir John Hurt also revealed six weeks ago that he had been diagnosed with the disease at the age of 75.
Although there is no universal cause of pancreatic cancer, people at higher risk of developing the disease include those with a family history of the disease, heavy smokers, the obese and people aged over 50 with new-onset diabetes.
Dr. James Flanagan, from the department of surgery and cancer at Imperial College London, said: “This novel and exciting topic has the potential to show how lifestyle and environmental factors influence one’s risk of developing breast cancer.”