Published on 10.06.2021

Breast cancer: detecting the invisible

Mammography is the method of choice for breast cancer screening. Although effective, this method has its limitations and, above all, it depends on the «visibility» of the cancer in the imaging process. Researchers at the University of Fribourg have shown that, even at an early stage, breast cancer causes an immune system reaction which can be detected by a blood test. This is an important result that opens up new prospects for diagnosis.

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in Switzerland. Its treatment has made enormous progress in recent years, resulting in better survival rates for patients. Mammography has also contributed to this, because the early detection of a cancer enables more effective treatment. However, this method has its limitations because it is based on the visual detection of the cancer. The results of research conducted at the University of Fribourg open up new prospects for the development of an early detection blood test.

The body's natural reaction 
To better understand the body's reaction to cancer, Professor Curzio Rüegg's team, in collaboration with researchers and oncologists from the Fribourg Hospital, the Neuchâtel Hospital Network (RHN) and the Clinica Luganese in Ticino, analysed the white blood cells of breast cancer patients using a flow cytometry technique in combination with an algorithmic analysis. The lead author of the study, Sarah Cattin, discovered significant differences in the frequency and characteristics of these cells between women with and without cancer. The cells in question are mainly the so-called myeloid cells which are involved in the defence against infection. The researchers were able to show that these differences disappeared after surgical removal of the tumour. Moreover, they observed that radiotherapy, in conjunction with surgery, stimulates another class of white blood cells, the T lymphocytes (T cells). This is particularly important because T cells have anti-tumour efficacy.

Towards a new detection test
This original and important work provides hope that this approach could make it possible to detect and monitor breast cancer by a simple blood test followed by analysis in the laboratory, even before the cancer is visible on a mammogram.

Sarah Cattin and Professor Rüegg's team, in collaboration with the Fribourg Breast Centre, the RHN, the Lausanne University Hospital, the Chemotherapy Centre and the Flon Imaging Centre in Lausanne, are now conducting a new study in which several technologies are to be combined with the aim of improving the sensitivity and specificity of this methodology. The results will open up new avenues which, in the long term, could lead to a new breast cancer detection test, complementary to mammography, and also capable of providing feedback on the effectiveness of the treatment being followed.

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