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Posted on: November 21, 2019 at 8:03 pm

You’ve heard it all before: the best ways to prevent cancer are to avoid tobacco, eat a healthy diet, maintain a proper weight, avoid excessive alcohol and sun exposure, and exercise regularly [1]. 

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Beyond these basic lifestyle habits, doctors also recommend regular screening for common cancers to detect changes in your body that could become cancer if left untreated [1]. 

While there are some well-established screening tests already available, such as colonoscopies, mammograms, and pap smears, researchers from the School of Medicine at the University of Nottingham may have developed a new blood test capable of detecting breast cancer up to 5 years before symptoms are present [2].

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Immune Surveillance

Before continuing, it is important to understand how your body detects cancer cells on its own. Normally, a healthy cell will grow and divide over a period of time until it dies.  A cancer cell continues to grow and divide until it eventually forms a tumor. Tumors produce proteins on their surface called antigens [2]. These tumor-associated-antigens (TAA’s) [2] are recognized by your body as “non-self”, or foreign, and your immune system is constantly monitoring to detect and destroy them. How does your body destroy these foreign invaders?  TAA’s trigger your body to make antibodies against the cancer cell, known as autoantibodies. This process is known as immune surveillance and indicates that your body can mount a protective response against cancer cells [3]. 

Detecting Cancer Through Your Blood

Researchers from the University of Nottingham are harnessing the body’s natural immune response to detect breast cancer earlier than mammograms.  

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The team took blood samples from 90 patients who had been newly diagnosed with breast cancer and compared them with samples from a control group of 90 patients who did not have cancer. The goal was to find out if they could detect the presence of specific autoantibodies and find out if they had been triggered by antigens from tumors [4].

The results were positive. 

 “We were able to detect cancer with reasonable accuracy by identifying these autoantibodies in the blood,” said Daniyah Alfattani, one of the Nottingham team [4]. 

This means that using a simple blood test, researchers were able to identify the body’s immune response to TAA’s and this may allow them to detect cancer significantly earlier than traditional tests [5].

So What’s Next?

While these initial results seem very promising, other researchers are cautioning against getting too excited just yet.  Cancer epidemiologist and professor at Cambridge University, Paul Pharoah, reminds us that this is very preliminary data. “A lot more research would be needed before any claim can be made that this is likely to represent a meaningful advance in the early detection of cancer.” [4]

After the success of these initial tests, researchers are now testing a sample of 800 patients against nine TAA’s, and expect the results to be even more accurate with this increased sample size [2].  If these tests go well, the team is hoping that a cancer-screening blood test will be available in the next four to five years.

Other Types of Cancer

When cancer is detected earlier, it is easier to treat and the survival rate is significantly higher, and the results of this study are not only promising for breast cancer detection.  Currently, similar tests are being carried out for lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, colorectal cancer, and liver cancer. This list makes up 70 percent of all cancers worldwide and could be a major breakthrough in cancer research.

So while this research is still new, we could be one step closer to a cancer-free world.

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Brittany Hambleton
Team Writer
Brittany is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor of Science in Foods and Nutrition and a writer’s certificate from the University of Western Ontario. She enjoyed a stint as a personal trainer and is an avid runner. Brittany loves to combine running and traveling, and has run numerous races across North America and Europe. She also loves chocolate more than anything else… the darker, the better!

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