A research team from the University of Southern California (USC) has found that a blood test can detect nano-sized signs of early-stage breast cancer.

Conducted in a small group of patients, the study showed that the liquid biopsy can determine whether a patient has breast cancer in the early stages, as well as the unlikelihood of the disease returning.

The study was conducted in partnership between USC, Epic Sciences, Duke University, Billings Clinic and the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Published in Nature’s npj Breast Cancer journal, the findings from the study increase hopes that doctors will be able to detect breast cancer using a simple blood test in the future.

USC cancer physicist Peter Kuhn said: “It’s an amazing opportunity to change how early breast cancer detection is being done with a simple blood draw, but it’s only a research outcome at this point and we still need to demonstrate clinical benefit.”

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The study involved 100 breast cancer patients, with some in early stage and some in late stage of the disease, and 40 participants without the disease.

It was conducted at clinical sites, including the Billings Clinic in Montana; Duke University Cancer Institute in Durham, North Carolina; the Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Keck School of Medicine, USC; and the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center in Duarte, California.

In the study, the research team tested the theory that a liquid biopsy can detect multiple cancer biomarkers, including oncosomes.

Oncosomes are nano-sized, membraned cargo carriers that improve the environment for cancer growth in the body.

Kuhn added: “The news here is that we found the vast majority of early-stage breast cancer patients have these oncosomes at very robust levels.

“They’re about five to ten microns in diameter, about the size of a cell. We first identified these large vesicles in prostate cancer about a year and a half ago and showed that they are related to the cancer. They are hiding in plain sight.”

The USC Michelson Convergent Science Institute in Cancer (CSI-Cancer) researchers are looking to test the method in large clinical trials to show the benefit of the liquid biopsy to patients everywhere.