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Cancer Blood Test Overhyped?

Experts dampen lay press’ exuberance

In a recent study published in Metabolomics and reported here at P&T Community, researchers in Denmark reported that a simple blood test looking at the chemicals and molecules present in a woman’s blood –– her so-called “metabolic profile” – could tell doctors whether she will develop breast cancer within the next 7 years.

“The method is better than mammography, which can be used only when the disease has already occurred. It is not perfect, but it is amazing that we can predict breast cancer years into the future,” one of the investigators announced.

According to Cancer Research UK (CRU), a registered charity funding cancer trials, you’d be right if you think the announcement is too good to be true. In a scathing response, the British group noted that while the new approach is interesting, the research is in its earliest stages and only looked at data from approximately 800 Danish women. “Further studies in much larger and more diverse groups of women need to be carried out before anyone can say whether the blood test is precise and sensitive enough to reliably identify women at higher risk of breast cancer,” the CRU says.

In addition, the Danish investigators will need to prove that their test wouldn’t falsely identify women who aren’t at high risk.

“So it’s far too soon to say it can be used by doctors now to predict which women will develop breast cancer,” the CRU says.

Moreover, contrary to optimistic statements reported in the lay press, there is not enough evidence that the test could “replace mammograms,” or to state that the test results could help tailor screening or be used to complement mammography.

“It’s important also to note that in the paper, the researchers themselves say they need to do more work to fully understand what the blood test results mean, and that further studies should be carried out in other women from other countries ‘with other diets, lifestyles, medications, and habits’,” the CRU notes.

According to the funding group, changes in the way cancer cells use nutrients to provide enough energy to grow is a burgeoning field of research. Scientists are looking into whether these changes can be used to spot the disease early, monitor responses to treatment, and develop new treatments.

For now, the CRU says, this is interesting research that may one day help doctors identify women at risk of developing breast cancer. But it’s too soon to say so just yet.

Sources: Medical Xpress; April 22, 2015; and Metabolomics; March 10, 2015.

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