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A blood test developed by Natera could detect early stage breast cancer relapse nearly two years quicker than current imaging technologies.

Called Signatera, the test conducts molecular residual disease (MRD) analysis to identify trace amounts of mutated DNA produced by dying tumours.

A research study by the University of Leicester and Imperial College London in the UK has demonstrated that Signatera identified 89% of all relapses around 8.9 months earlier than imaging techniques.

Funded by Cancer Research UK, the study involved 49 early stage breast cancer patients that were recently treated with surgery and adjuvant chemotherapy. Investigators examined a cross-section of subtypes, including human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 positive (HER2+), estrogen receptor positive (ER+) and triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) tumours.

Blood tests were performed every six months for up to four years and findings were compared to radiographic and clinical outcomes.

“The results of this exciting study show that it is possible to monitor patients with a simple blood-based test.”

The University of Leicester’s translational cancer research professor Jacqui Shaw said: “Currently, there are no sensitive and specific clinical tests available to follow breast cancer patients after their primary treatment.

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“The results of this exciting study show that it is possible to monitor patients with a simple blood-based test, and this may provide a critical window of opportunity for earlier treatment than by other current tests.”

Each year, two million women are estimated to be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, which is considered the second leading cause of cancer-related death in women.

Relapse is considered as a challenge for the overall survival rate of patients and five-year recurrence rates are estimated to increase by nearly 30%. Early detection of relapse is expected to enable better treatments.

Imperial College London medical oncology professor Charles Coombes said: “With this innovative method of detecting minimal residual breast cancer, we now have the opportunity to conduct trials of treatments to prevent patients relapsing with symptomatic metastatic breast cancer.”

Findings from the research have been published in the Clinical Cancer Research journal.