Breakthrough in breast cancer tests

A newly discovered biomarker could help doctors identify abnormal but harmless breast cells that are destined to develop into deadly tumours.

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Around 4,800 cases of DCIS are diagnosed each year in the UK

A newly discovered biomarker could help doctors identify abnormal but harmless breast cells that are destined to develop into deadly tumours.

Researchers found a link between levels of the protein alpha v beta 6 in breast tissue and chances of the non-malignant condition Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS) progressing to invasive cancer.

Around 4,800 cases of DCIS are diagnosed each year in the UK. If left untreated, up to half could lead to invasive breast cancer - but until now it has not been possible to predict which.

As a result, many women now undergo unnecessary procedures including surgery and radiotherapy.

Scientists looked at 583 breast tissue samples from women with normal breasts and those with DCIS. They found almost no alpha v beta 6 in normal tissues, but it was present in more than half of the women with DCIS.

Women with higher grade DCIS were more likely to have the protein. It was found in nearly all cases that had already started to transform into invasive breast cancer.

Women with DCIS whose breast tissue contained alpha v beta 6 saw their disease recur around nine years earlier than those lacking the molecule.

In addition, laboratory experiments showed that the protein encouraged breast cancer cells to grow faster and spread.

Professor Louise Jones, one of the scientists from Queen Mary, University of London, 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. This will be a huge step forward in how we treat women with DCIS.

"Our ultimate goal is that women diagnosed with DCIS without alpha v beta 6 could be offered active monitoring, saving them from potentially unnecessary surgery and radiotherapy."

The study, funded by Breast Cancer Campaign, appears in the journal Clinical Cancer Research.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, the charity's chief executive, 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."

Professor Shirley Hodgson, a cancer genetics expert at St George's, University Of London, said: "This could mark a ground-breaking advance in the way that DCIS is managed and treated, allowing chemotherapy to be used only in the progressive cases, and also suggests novel cancer therapies that can be developed based on inhibition of this cancer pathway."