Researchers are developing a fast, simple, and less invasive test based on blood samples to detect breast cancer, disease progression, or relapse much earlier than currently used methods, such as biopsy, MRI, or mammograms.
Dr. Katie Meehan from the University of Western Australia’s (UWA) School of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine is the leading investigator of the project.
She believes that by being able to assess patients before, during, and after treatment, the new test may markedly improve how clinicians follow cancer progression, resulting in better health outcomes.
“Women in rural and remote areas would benefit significantly from the new diagnostic blood test to monitor for low levels of residual or recurrent disease,” Meehan said in a press release. “Currently it’s costly, time-consuming, and physically draining for these women to travel to Perth for regular treatment, whereas the new test could be done by a routine pathology lab anywhere. [The test] will enable cancer patients to find out at the earliest possible time whether their cancer had returned.”
The blood test will be based on the analysis of tiny vesicles, called exosomes, that are secreted by cancer cells into the blood. Normal cells also secrete these tiny vesicles, but those derived from cancer cells can be identified through detection of unique subsets of proteins characteristic of the cancer cells.
Detecting these vesicles in the blood may give researchers some insight on whether the cancer is present, if it is progressing, or if it’s responding to therapies.
“Our research examines cancer ‘exosomes’ which are parts of the cancer shed into the body fluids that can drive the spread and aggressiveness of cancer,” Meehan said. “These exosomes, or biomarkers of disease, can be detected during routine blood tests, and as early studies show exosome levels increase with more aggressive cancers, our research will monitor exosome levels in patients’ blood during treatment.
“We hope to show that when exosomes become undetectable in the blood, this indicates the cancer is gone, or if exosomes remain in the blood, this may identify a cancer at risk of returning.”
Meehan believes that developing this blood-based test could be a game-changer for patient care, and help eliminate the need for most painful and invasive procedures, which is particularly important for women with metastatic breast cancer (cancer cells that have spread to tissues outside the breasts, including lungs, liver, bones, or the brain).
Here is a short video released by the UWA research team that explains how the test will work.