Researchers at the University of Nottingham have found that a simple blood test can help to detect breast cancer up to five years before the appearance of clinical symptoms of the disease.

According to researchers, the blood test could be used to identify the body’s immune response to substances produced by tumour cells.

Cancer cells produce proteins known as antigens, which in turn trigger the body to produce specific antibodies, known as autoantibodies, against them. Researchers have found that these tumour-associated antigens (TAAs) serve as indicators of cancer.

The researchers conducted a pilot study, taking blood samples from 90 patients with breast cancer, then comparing them with a control group of 90 cancer-free patients.

A screening technology (protein microarray) was used to screen the blood samples to quickly detect the presence of autoantibodies against 40 TAAs linked with breast cancer, as well as 27 TAAs not known to be associated with the disease.

University of Nottingham PhD student Daniyah Alfattani, who is associated with the study, said: “The results of our study showed that breast cancer does induce autoantibodies against panels of specific tumour-associated antigens. We were able to detect cancer with reasonable accuracy by identifying these autoantibodies in the blood.”

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Three panels of TAAs were identified to test for autoantibodies. The test’s accuracy improved in panels with more TAAs.

Alfattani added: “We need to develop and further validate this test. However, these results are encouraging and indicate that it’s possible to detect a signal for early breast cancer. Once we have improved the accuracy of the test, then it opens the possibility of using a simple blood test to improve early detection of the disease.

“A blood test for early breast cancer detection would be cost-effective, which would be of particular value in low and middle-income countries. It would also be an easier screening method to implement compared to current methods, such as mammography.”

According to researchers, the test may become clinically available within four to five years following a fully-funded development programme.