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Breast cancer blood test FAQs

Clinical study starting to see if a simple blood test can detect breast cancer
WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Keith David Barnard
blood sample

2nd October 2012 - A pioneering new clinical study is about to start at the UK’s largest breast screening clinic at Charing Cross Hospital in London. It aims to discover if a simple blood test could be a more accurate way to look for the early signs of breast cancer than using mammograms to spot a lump.

How do we currently test for breast cancer?

Breast cancer is currently diagnosed by a low dose x-ray called a mammogram. As part of the NHS Breast Screening Programme women aged between 50 and 70 are invited to attend breast screening every three years. The programme is gradually being extended to include women aged 47 to 73.

The number of people being diagnosed with breast cancer is increasing but survival rates are improving. This is probably because of more targeted treatments, earlier detection and better breast awareness.

Screening for breast cancer, however, is a controversial issue. Supporters highlight the fact that early diagnosis leads to an improved chance of a successful cure. It is estimated that the NHS Breast Screening Programme saves 1,400 lives a year. Critics argue that screening has an unacceptably high false positive rate. This means that some women who do not have breast cancer are wrongly diagnosed as having the condition. This causes harm through worry, unnecessary further invasive tests and sometimes treatment that is not needed.

An independent review of breast cancer screening is currently underway.

What would be the benefit of a blood test?

A blood test would be quicker and easier, would detect cancer at an earlier stage than mammography, and help avoid false positives. It's also hoped it could improve treatment by detecting whether breast cancer patients are likely to relapse and what drugs their particular type of tumour would respond to.

Dr Jacqui Shaw, from the University of Leicester and principal investigator on the study said in a press statement: "This exciting research means we could one day have a blood test that detects the very early signs of cancer meaning women could have an annual blood test rather than breast screening. This would remove any worry and anxiety for women who are called for further investigations after a mammogram only to find they don’t have cancer.

She adds: "As things stand we aren't able to monitor breast cancer patients after they’ve had surgery and treatment - which is like treating diabetes but not measuring blood sugar levels. This new blood test could change that."

What does the new clinical trial involve?

Researchers will take blood samples from women attending the breast screening clinic and compare the DNA in the blood of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer via mammography, with those who do not have cancer to see what DNA markers are consistent.

Professor Charles Coombes, co-investigator and Cancer Research UK’s breast cancer expert from Imperial College, said in a press release:"When a woman has breast cancer we can tell by the DNA in their blood. But what we’re trying to find out in our study is how early the signs of breast cancer show up in a blood test. So by looking at blood samples of women who have breast cancer diagnosed through screening we can see if the cancer is already showing in their blood."

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