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Smear tests to predict risk of breast cancer

A routine smear test will soon be able to tell whether a woman is at any future risk of having breast cancer and will be incorporated into the NHS smear test routine in as little as five years time.

British researchers who have made the breakthrough in testing say it could revolutionise the treatment of breast cancer and save millions of lives by identifying who is at risk years before the disease even develops, and can also reassure millions of other women that they are unlikely to ever suffer from the disease.

By incorporating the test into the modern routine smear test, patients with a chance of developing breast cancer can then have a chance of getting a ‘head start’ in fighting the disease.

Scientists at University College London have discovered that patients whose cancer is not hereditary also carry the same genetic marker in their blood. Professor Martin Widschwendter, head of the Department of Women’s Cancer at UCL said, “We identified a signature in women with a mutated BRCA1 gene that was linked to increased cancer risk and lower survival rates. Surprisingly, we found the same genetic signature in large cohorts of women without the BRCA1 mutation and it was able to predict breast cancer risk several years before diagnosis.”

The research, published in the medical journal ‘Genome Medicine’, found the DNA signature in the blood of women who developed non-hereditary cancers was the same as those with the genetic mutation. This genetic signature may be responsible for switching off genes in immune cells, stopping them from preventing breast cancer developing.

Professor Widschwendter said blood wasn’t even the best source for this sort of test because the disease usually starts in skin cells. Instead, doctors hope to use the cells collected from smear tests usually used to diagnose cervical cancer. He added, “We would be able to predict breast cancer risk using these signatures as part of your smear test. It is very exciting.”

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