Intermountain to study whether a blood test can detect breast cancer

Intermountain to study whether a blood test can detect breast cancer

Intermountain Healthcare has launched a three-year study to see if a blood test that looks for DNA from a cancer tumor might be able to detect breast cancer earlier.
As Intermountain Healthcare researchers conceive the project, the blood test would complement annual mammograms.

Cancer researchers at Intermountain Medical Center and the Intermountain Precision Genomics Program will collaborate.

[Also: Intermountain, Stanford University see promise for precision medicine in cancer cases]

The goal is to show whether screening patients for the presence of circulating tumor DNA – known as ctDNA – can detect breast cancer using a blood draw. 

Breast cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in women, behind only lung cancer. An estimated 40,610 deaths occur each year from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society. Nearly 253,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer are diagnosed each year.

Intermountain researchers will also help develop a specific test to check for ctDNA, and will have access to both mammography results and the DNA blood test results, which makes possible a direct comparison.

How might evidence of breast cancer show up in a blood test? Little pieces of DNA that come from dying cells end up in the peripheral blood stream, including circulating tumor cells.

The goal of researchers is to use those markers to identify breast cancer, perhaps even before mammography can detect it, Lincoln Nadauld, MD, co-lead investigator of the study, said in a statement. Nadauld is executive director of the Intermountain Healthcare Precision Genomics Program.

“As a tumor is growing, some of the cells will die and their DNA will end up in the peripheral bloodstream,” Nadauld added. “We’re able to distinguish DNA from cancer vs. DNA from normal cells. The idea is to leverage DNA to see if we can detect that it comes from a tumor.”

In the study, patients with known breast cancer will be compared with those in a screening group. 

“We don’t know what we’ll see yet,” said Brett Parkinson, MD, co-lead investigator of the study, who is also imaging director and medical director of the Intermountain Medical Center Breast Care Center in Murray. “We might find those who have breast cancer will have a negative blood test and learn it’s not a good screening tool.”

Even a successful blood test isn’t expected to replace mammography outright. If it detects the circulating tumor DNA, imaging would be needed to find the tumor, Brett Parkinson, MD, co-lead investigator of the study, added. But it could help eliminate unneeded biopsies.

Nadauld said if successful, a liquid biopsy might also be used to monitor a breast cancer survivor for recurrence or be used to develop similar tests for different types of cancer.

“We want to approach this with laser-like focus,” he added. “It’s needed to help us diagnose breast cancer. We need to detect it earlier, when it’s curable.”

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