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Calgary-made blood test aims to improve breast cancer detection

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2019-03-15 Jennifer Lee
a woman in a white shirt: Emma Weinhaupl is a participant in a study at the University of Calgary that tests for breast cancer through a blood test. © CBC Emma Weinhaupl is a participant in a study at the University of Calgary that tests for breast cancer through a blood test.

University of Calgary scientists have developed a test they believe could improve breast cancer detection with just a teaspoon of blood, and they're now testing it on hundreds of women in Alberta and the U.K.

The clinical study, which began in May 2018,  will involve more than 800 women from Calgary and Edmonton, and roughly 600 women in Manchester, U.K.

Participants are given a simple blood test along with their regular mammogram.

"The earlier you can identify the breast cancer at a point that it's treatable, the better the outcomes," said Kristina Rinker, associate professor of bioengineering at the University of Calgary.

According to Rinker, a  computer algorithm allows scientists to identify a molecular marker for active breast cancer in the blood at an early stage. She says 800 samples — already collected — show the test has an accuracy rate of about 90 per cent.

"Finding it early, finding it at stage one, getting the treatment as fast as possible, that's going to save lives," she said.

Rinker hopes the blood test will eventually be used along with mammography to  help identify cancer in women who have dense breast tissue — which makes cancer more difficult to detect — or those who have inconclusive mammogram results.

"There is a great need for additional technologies to supplement [those] situations," said Rinker. "Another technology that works in a way that is complimentary to the imaging can really help...identify those individuals."

a person smiling for the camera: CBC/Jennifer Lee © CBC/Jennifer Lee CBC/Jennifer Lee

A University of Calgary spin-off company, Syantra Inc, is now working to get the test to market — which scientists hope will happen in the next two years.

"The data obtained through this work will be used to support regulatory applications, and promote making the test available to an initial group of patients in a short amount of time," said Bob Shepherd, president of Syantra Inc.

"Our goal...is to help when mammography or other imaging results are inconclusive to make decisions about the proper course of treatment for patients," he said. 

Quicker results

The potential for quicker testing would help alleviate the stress on patients, according to Ellen Wright Terrill, interim CEO of Alberta Cancer Foundation, one of the funding partners for this study.

"When you can add a simple blood test to the breast cancer screening protocol, you have the ability to impact lives," Wright Terrill said. "You have the ability to detect cancer sooner, to start treatment sooner. And, I think you also have the ability to shorten that waiting time that somebody goes through when they're trying to  find out if they have cancer or not."

a woman standing in front of a store: CBC © CBC CBC

The current study is being conducted to determine the accuracy of the test for different groups of women.

"I think its game changing for women's health," said study participant Emma Weinhaupl who has always worried that because she has dense breasts, signs of breast cancer might be missed by her mammograms.

"As a 51-year-old woman, who's now on that journey of regular screenings, it's definitely something that reduces my stress level, my concern. It's quick, it's easy.... It's a game changer for women's health."

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