A New Way to Detect Breast Cancer Early

Researchers have discovered a blood test with the potential to someday diagnose breast cancer years before any symptoms.

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

Breast cancer is the most common non-skin cancer among women in the United States, and early detection is key. In fact, over the past 25 years, more than 2.6 million breast cancer deaths have been avoided in part due to people finding out about it sooner. Now, researchers claim a new blood test could someday help detect breast cancer up to five years early.

The blood test looks for the immune system's response to tumor cells, according to new research from the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. Specifically, tumor cells produce certain substances called tumor-associated antigens (TAA) that the blood test can detect, five years before a person has any clinical signs of breast cancer.

Researchers took blood samples from 90 people with breast cancer diagnoses and matched them with a control group of 90 people without breast cancer. They screened the samples for the presence of specific autoantibodies (proteins the body produces in response to the TAAs) and TAAs themselves known to be associated with breast cancer.

"We were able to detect cancer with reasonable accuracy by identifying these autoantibodies in the blood," said Daniyah Alfattani, a Ph.D. student involved in the research when presenting at the National Cancer Research Institute conference on Nov. 3, 2019.

The more TAAs each test screened for, the more accurate the tests were. For example, the panel of five TAAs identified breast cancer in 29% of the samples from the participants with cancer and correctly found that 84% of the control samples were cancer-free, and the panel of nine TAAs detected cancer in 37% of the cancer samples and correctly found no cancer in 79% of the control samples.

"We need to develop and further validate this test," said Alfattani. "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." The test may be available in as little as four to five years, the researchers say.

She added that the test would be a cost-effective option that could be used in low- and middle-income countries and would be an easier way to screen for breast cancer than even mammography—x-rays of the breasts—which is the current standard.

The group is also working on creating similar tests for other cancers, including pancreatic, colorectal, and liver cancer.

What You Should Know About Breast Cancer Screening

In the meantime, it's important to see your doctor regularly for breast cancer screening as recommended for your age group and risk factors. Here are the current guidelines, per the American Cancer Society:

  • Women ages 40-44. You have the choice to start yearly screening with mammograms.

  • Women ages 45-54. You’re advised to get annual mammograms.

  • Women 55 and up. You can switch to mammograms every two years or choose to continue annual mammograms.

Some women, depending on certain risk factors like family history or genetic testing results, may also receive an MRI along with their mammogram for extra thorough screening, says the American Cancer Society.

In addition to getting mammograms on schedule, you should also have what's sometimes called "breast self-awareness." Basically, get to know how your breasts normally look and feel and if you notice any changes or symptoms of breast cancer, see a doctor right away.

  • Breast Cancer Statistics: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Breast Cancer Statistics. cdc.gov

  • Cancer Screening Guidelines: American Cancer Society. (2019). American Cancer Society Guidelines for the Early Detection of Cancer.

  • Blood Test for Breast Cancer Early Detection News Release: National Cancer Research Institute. (2019). Press release: Simple blood test for early detection of breast cancer.

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com.