A BREAKTHROUGH in diagnosis of breast cancer could save thousands of women from enduring unnecessary mastectomies and radiotherapy, researchers have said.
Up to 5000 women a year are diagnosed with early signs of the disease but until now doctors have been unable to distinguish between the cases which will become dangerous, and those that do not need treatment.
Scientists say they have made a “huge step forward” in developing a simple test, which could free half of such women from undergoing needless surgery and gruelling sessions of radiotherapy and hormone therapy.
There has been growing concern that routine screening for women aged between 50 and 70 has resulted in thousands having unnecessary treatment.
Each year, more than 4800 women are diagnosed with Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (Dcis) – a condition where non-invasive cancerous cells are contained within the milk ducts of the breast.
Without treatment, which can involve surgery, full mastectomies, radiotherapy and hormone therapy, half are likely to develop invasive breast cancer – but until now doctors have been unable to accurately identify which of the patients will do so.
The new study by Barts Cancer Institute, at Queen Mary University of London, has identified a molecule which is commonly present in about half of the cases, and also found in almost all cases of invasive cancer.
The molecule – avß6 – was rarely found in healthy breast tissue.
Breast Cancer Campaign (which funded the study) CE Baroness Delyth Morgan said in future, simple tests for the compound could save women from “agonising” dilemmas and enduring traumatic treatment which could have been avoided.
She said: “This research could be key to the hunt to develop a life-changing reliable prognostic test for women with Dcis. Such a test would mean women with Dcis would finally be able to make informed decisions about their treatment.
“They would no longer face the agonising choice between risking their breast cancer becoming invasive or facing treatment without knowing whether their Dcis will become life-threatening or not.”
The charity said that although tests would not be available immediately, it was possible they could be in use within two years – which would signal “a pivotal moment in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer”.
The timing depends on carrying out further research on sufficient samples of women with Dcis who choose not to have treatment.
One of the study’s authors, Professor Louise Jones said: “We are confident these results will be validated in further studies and from there we don’t envisage any barriers to this research resulting in the development of a routine test which could take place in the clinic.”
Tests would be carried out as part of a standard biopsy given when a woman has a suspicious lump
In the study, researchers examined 583 breast tissue samples.
When cells contained the compound, disease recurred about nine years earlier than when cells did not – in an average of two years compared with 11 in cases without the molecules. – The Telegraph