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Posted: 08 January 2008

New test may prevent some newly diagnosed breast cancer patients from having to undergo chemotherapy

Scientists at the UCD Conway Institute and St Vincent’s University Hospital have developed a test for newly diagnosed breast cancer patients that could help some women avoid chemotherapy.

The findings have been tested and validated by a number of independent groups worldwide; in studies involving in excess of 8,000 patients. The American Society of Clinical Oncology has now recommended the test as standard for all newly diagnosed breast cancer patients. And although not currently available in Ireland, its developers hope that funding will be made available for its implementation in Ireland in the near future.

By measuring the levels of a particular enzyme in the tumour, the new enzyme test can predict whether the patient’s cancer will spread beyond the breast site or not. If the levels of the enzyme – known as uPA – are found to be high, there is a stronger likelihood of the patient developing ‘secondaries’ or metastasis. This means that the patient would require chemotherapy as well as surgery to fight the disease. However, if the levels of uPA are found to be low, a combination of surgery and radiotherapy may be sufficient in order to address the cancer, helping to minimise the expense and the discomfort of the treatment for the patient.

“At the moment most women undergo long and uncomfortable sessions of chemotherapy after their initial breast surgery, but this new enzyme test can help to offer a more tailored solution for patients,” explains Professor Joe Duffy from the UCD Conway Institute and St Vincent’s University Hospital who led the team of scientists and doctors who developed the test. “This new test may help some women newly diagnosed with breast cancer avoid chemotherapy. It leans towards the concept of personalised treatment rather than giving the chemotherapy blunderbuss to all patients, regardless of whether it is suitable for them or not.”

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers affecting women in Ireland, second only to non-melanoma skin cancer. As the Irish population ages, it is predicted that numbers of new cases of breast cancer will continue to rise and so the development of this test will be a significant breakthrough for many women.

The research was funded by the Irish Cancer Society and the Health Research Board of Ireland.

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