UK scientists from the University of Westminster’s Faculty of Science and Technology have confirmed that a new blood test can detect if breast cancer has spread to other parts of the body in a research study funded by the charity Against Breast Cancer. 

Results published in the British Journal of Cancer showed that the test distinguished between patients with secondary breast cancer and those who remained disease free for years after a breast cancer diagnosis. 

Researchers analysed the blood of 112 breast cancer patients using samples collected as part of the charity’s DietCompLyf study. They detected higher levels of a protein called ‘cadherin-5’ that had unusual sugars decorating its surface in women who went on to be diagnosed with secondary breast cancer over a year later. This indicates that the sensitivity of current blood tests could be improved upon for earlier diagnosis of secondary disease. Further research with more patient samples will be needed before the usefulness of the test will be fully realised.

More sensitive, non-invasive tests are required for secondary breast cancer - which occurs when new tumours grow in the bone, liver, lung or brain - to make diagnosis easier and for treatment to begin as early as possible.

Dr Miriam Dwek, Reader and Group Leader of the Cancer Research Group at the University of Westminster who led the research, says: “This research verified the results of our previous work in a larger group of patients, defining cadherin-5 proteins that display abnormal sugar arrangements as a new biomarker for metastatic, or secondary breast cancer. The blood test worked particularly well at identifying metastasis in a sub-group of patients with oestrogen responsive breast cancers, which make up 70% of all breast cancers diagnosed.  We are excited and hope to develop this test further so in the future there will be improved methods for better monitoring of patients. At the moment the test is not ‘patient ready’ but the initial results are encouraging.”

Secondary breast cancer is difficult to diagnose before symptoms are experienced and occurs in up to a third of breast cancer patients, sometimes many years after seemingly successful treatment for localised, primary cancer that remained in the breast. Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women worldwide and secondary spread claims the lives of around 1000 people a month in the UK.

The University of Westminster’s Cancer Research Group undertakes pioneering research into the detection, treatment and prevention of solid and blood borne cancers. Dr Miriam Dwek PhD, Leader of the University of Westminster’s Breast Cancer Research Group, and Registered Nutritionist (AfN) Dr Claire E Robertson, co-authored ‘The Breast Cancer Cookbook’ with renowned breast cancer surgeon Professor Mohammed Keshtgar.

In the most recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) assessing the quality of research in UK universities in an international context, a proportion of the research outputs in all subject areas at the University’s Faculty of Science and Technology were judged to be at world-leading and internationally excellent.

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