Blood test could detect breast cancer five years before clinical signs

Blood test could detect start of breast cancer five YEARS before any clinical signs emerge, researchers claim

  • Researchers at University of Nottingham say new blood test can detect cancer
  • Test checks response of body’s immune system to antigens made by tumours
  • If proved reliable could detect breast cancer up to five years before clinical signs

A new blood test could detect breast cancer up to five years before any clinical signs of the disease, according to new research.

Researchers are developing the simple test which they say identifies the body’s immune response to substances produced by tumour cells.

Cancer cells produce proteins called antigens that trigger the body to make antibodies against them – autoantibodies.

Researchers at the University of Nottingham have found these tumour-associated antigens (TAAs) are good indicators of cancer.

Researchers at the University of Nottingham have found these tumour-associated antigens (TAAs) are good indicators of cancer 

They have developed panels of TAAs that are associated with breast cancer to detect whether there are autoantibodies against them in blood samples taken from patients.

Autoantibodies against a number of TAAs can be detected up to five years before clinical signs of the tumour.

In a pilot study the scientists, part of the Centre of Excellence for Autoimmunity in Cancer (CEAC) group at the School of Medicine, University of Nottingham, took blood samples from 90 breast cancer patients at the time they were diagnosed.

They matched them with samples taken from a control group of 90 patients without breast cancer.

Details of the experimental study conducted in people and cells were presented at the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) conference in Glasgow.

Daniyah Alfattani, a PhD student in the research group, said: ‘The results of our study showed that breast cancer does induce autoantibodies against panels of specific tumour-associated antigens.

‘We were able to detect cancer with reasonable accuracy by identifying these autoantibodies in the blood.’

Researchers identified three panels of TAAs against which to test for autoantibodies.

According to the research, the panel of five TAAs correctly detected breast cancer in 29 per cent of the samples from the cancer patients and correctly identified 84 per cent of the control samples as being cancer-free.

Researchers at the University of Nottingham have found these tumour-associated antigens (TAAs) are good indicators of cancer (stock photo)

The panel of seven TAAs correctly identified cancer in 35 per cent of cancer samples and no cancer in 79 per cent of control samples.

The panel of nine antigens correctly identified cancer in 37 per cent of cancer samples and no cancer in 79 per cent of the controls.

Ms Alfattani added: ‘We need to develop and further validate this test. However, these results are encouraging and indicate that it’s possible to detect a signal for early breast cancer.

‘Once we have improved the accuracy of the test, then it opens the possibility of using a simple blood test to improve early detection of the disease.’

Now the scientists are testing samples from 800 patients against a panel of nine TAAs.

They estimate that, with a fully funded development programme, the test might become available in the clinic in about four to five years.

A similar test for lung cancer is being tested in a randomised controlled trial in Scotland, involving 12,000 people at high risk of developing lung cancer because they smoke.

However experts have warned that the research is in the early stages, and highlight that samples from breast cancer patients from five years before they were diagnosed have not been tested.

Paul Pharoah, professor of cancer epidemiology, University of Cambridge, said: ‘These are clearly very preliminary data and a lot more research would be needed before any claim can be made that this is likely to represent a meaningful advance in the early detection of cancer.

‘I think it is too soon to even claim that the research is promising.’

Lawrence Young, professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick, said: ‘While this is encouraging research, it is too soon to claim this test could be used to screen for early breast cancer.

‘More work is needed to increase the efficiency and sensitivity of cancer detection.’


Cancer cells initially stay within the body tissue from where they developed, for example the breast ducts.

They then grow and divide to create more cells, which end up being a tumour. A tumour may contain millions of cancer cells.

All body tissues are surrounded by a membrane that keeps its cells inside. If cancer cells break through this layer, the tumour is called invasive.

As a tumour grows, its centre moves further away from the blood vessels in the area where it is growing.

This causes the centre to have less oxygen and nutrients, which cancer cells cannot live without. They therefore send out signals, called angiogenic factors, that encourage new blood vessels into the tumour.

Once a tumour has its own blood supply, it can rapidly expand by stimulating the growth of hundreds of new capillaries to bring it oxygen and nutrients. 

As it grows, the mass puts pressure on surrounding structures. But how it enters these tissues is not fully understood.

One theory is it forces itself into normal tissue. This blocks blood vessels, which causes the healthy tissue to die and makes it easier for the cancer to continue to spread.

Many cancers also contain high levels of enzymes that break down healthy cells and tissues. 

They also produce a mysterious substance, which growing research suggests stimulates them to move, however, this is unclear.

Source: Cancer Research UK 

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