The challenge of treating cancer is often to try and catch it early. In the beginning stages, cancer is growing rapidly, but often hasn’t spread to other locations. That makes removing the cancer much easier and makes the likelihood low that the cancer will come back. The trouble is, catching cancer early can be tricky and by the time you find it, it might already be too late. To help with this problem, a group of researchers has come up with a way to predict who’s likely to get cancer two to five years before they would normally be diagnosed.
How do we normally screen for breast cancer?
Mammograms have been the mainstay for finding breast cancer in its early stages. A mammogram is an X-ray picture of the breast that reveals some of the structures in the breast. Breast cancer tends to be more visible than other breast tissues on a mammogram and often appears with certain characteristic shapes and patterns. The problem with mammograms is that a lot of interpretation and experience is needed to read them. Often times something that looks like cancer actually isn’t and sometimes cancers don’t show up. This is particularly the case in younger women who have dense breast tissue. The dense tissue can look like cancer when it isn’t and hide small cancers that may be growing inside.
How did these researchers approach the problem?
The team saw that knowing who’s at risk and who isn’t can help doctors to focus their efforts on specific women. Those at higher risk might need to start mammograms earlier or have them more often. When something is found, doctors might also be more likely to do further testing to figure out if cancer is present. That also means that women who aren’t likely to have cancer might need fewer screens and invasive tests that could harm their future health since any findings are less likely to be dangerous.
Several studies in the past have shown that cancer can alter the chemistry and makeup of the blood in nuanced ways. Most tests have focused on pinpointing a single chemical or protein that signifies a certain cancer. The team wondered if testing an entire sample of blood for a wide variety of chemicals could give them an overall picture of what might be happening in someone’s body before these specific signals showed up. They hoped that this bird’s eye view of health might reveal bigger patterns that aren’t so obvious when you only look at one chemical at a time.
How did the researchers test so many chemicals?
The researchers used a technology called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) that picks up how atoms in a chemical vibrate when they’re exposed to different magnetic forces. Different chemicals and parts of chemicals vibrate with different forces and that allows researchers to test a large sample of blood for many different chemicals at once. In this case, the team wasn’t as concerned with exactly which chemicals were present. They were more focused on the overall pattern of the result that included the signals of all the chemicals combined together. They called this overall pattern a “biocontour.”
How did this relate to breast cancer?
The researchers used blood samples gathered from women for another study in the 90s. They looked to see which women got breast cancer and which didn’t and compared the biocontours that came from NMR analysis of each of their blood samples. They found that women who ended up with breast cancer had changes in their biocontour years before their cancer was diagnosed. They found that this predictor did a better job at finding women who were likely to have breast cancer than just using lifestyle factors, which is the most common method used to today to determine who’s at risk for breast cancer.
How does this apply to you?
The test is in the early stages and has only been done in this one group of women. But because NMR is already commonly used in medical settings, this test may not be far off. If paired with other ways of measuring breast cancer risk, this test could help doctors better identify who might need closer attention when it comes to looking for breast cancer.