Dec. 26 (UPI) -- Researchers at University College London say they've found an early indicator of fatal breast cancer that could help doctors make diagnoses one year earlier than current screening methods for the disease.
Using blood serum samples from almost 1,000 women, researchers looked for the presence of carbon and hydrogen molecules attached to a chunk of DNA called EFC#93. The method helped to identify cancer in 43 percent of women who were diagnosed six months later.
The presence of those attached molecules, called DNA methylation, is a hallmark that a person's cancer could likely be fatal. Researchers say it can be detected before mammograms find cancer in breasts, allowing for earlier treatment.
The method was also used to classify 88 percent of women who did not develop breast cancer, with Professor Martin Widschwendter adding that it may not be as effective at diagnosing non-fatal breast cancer.
"Importantly, EFC#93 did not detect non-fatal breast cancers early. In comparison, mammography screening has a specificity of 88-92% but leads to very substantial over-diagnosis, which means that tumors are detected that would never have caused any clinical symptoms," he said in a release. "Subject to further study, using cell-free DNA as a marker, as we have done here, is a promising way of avoiding this issue."
Clinicians are following up on the study, published this month in the journal Genome Medicine, to see if hormone therapy could preemptively help women who have DNA methylation at EFC#93 but haven't received a positive diagnosis through mammography.
"For the first time, our study provides evidence that DNA methylation markers such as EFC#93 provide a highly specific indicator that could diagnose fatal breast cancers up to one year in advance of current diagnosis," Widschwendter said. "This may enable individualized treatment, which could even begin in the absence of radiological evidence in the breast."