Zinc Test Could Lead To Earlier Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
A team of UK researchers led by Oxford University scientists has devised a new test that could help doctors diagnose breast cancer earlier by detecting changes in a person’s zinc levels, according to research currently appearing in the journal Metallomics.
The study authors, which also included experts from Imperial College London and the Natural History Museum in London, explained they were able to demonstrate that changes in the isotopic composition of zinc (which can be detected in a person’s breast tissue) could serve as a biomarker of early breast cancer.
According to Daily Mail science correspondent Fiona Macrae, the researchers hope that the metal-detecting blood test could detect cancer before a woman develops a lump, thus allowing doctors to treat it during its earliest stages and potentially save thousands of lives.
“There is a survival rate of about 80 percent for breast cancer but the earlier you can detect it, the more chance you have of treating it,” lead author Dr. Fiona Larner from the Oxford University Department of Earth Sciences told the Daily Mail on Tuesday. “If you can detect it earlier, you can give more women a better chance of survival.”
The test focuses around the so-called heavy and light forms of zinc that exist in a person’s body. Breast tissue is known to absorb zinc and release it back into the bloodstream, Macrae said. Dr. Larner’s team found that cancerous cells tend to absorb more zinc, and also hold onto more of the light form of the metal.
If breast tumors have more of the light version in their tissue, the unwanted heavy version of zinc should be floating around in the bloodstream. Thus, if a woman has higher-than-average levels of the heavy form of the metal in her blood, she could have breast cancer, Dr. Larner said. She and her colleagues are developing a blood test that uses this diagnostic, and they hope that it will be available within the next five years.
As part of the pilot study, the researchers analyzed zinc in the blood and blood serum of 10 subjects (five breast cancer patients and five healthy control subjects) along with a range of breast tissue samples from cancer patients. By using highly-sensitive techniques, they were able to demonstrate that they could detect key differences in zinc caused when cancer makes subtle changes to the way that the body’s cells process the metal.
Similar changes in copper in one of the breast cancer patients provided additional evidence supporting the notion that it could be possible to identify a biomarker for early breast cancer. This discovery, the researchers said, could be used to develop a simple, non-invasive diagnostic blood test that can detect the disease when it is most treatable.
“It has been known for over a decade that breast cancer tissues contain high concentrations of zinc but the exact molecular mechanisms that might cause this have remained a mystery,” Dr. Larner said in a statement.
“Our work shows that techniques commonly used in earth sciences can help us to understand not only how zinc is used by tumor cells but also how breast cancer can lead to changes in zinc in an individual’s blood – holding out the promise of an easily-detectable biomarker of early breast cancer,” she added.
Dr. Larner told the UK Press Association that she is hopeful the test will be used to help screen all women in the UK for early signs of breast cancer within the next 10 years. In the meantime, however, the test is most likely to be reserved for higher-risk women with inherited breast cancer genes, such as BRCA1 or 2, the news organization added.
“The hope is that this research is the beginning of a whole new approach,” said Dr. Larner. “Understanding how different cancers alter different trace metals within the body could enable us to develop both new diagnostic tools and new treatments that could lead to a ‘two-pronged’ attack on many cancers. Further research is already underway to see what changes in other metals may be caused by other cancers.”
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