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This article was first published by our digital media partner The New Daily on March 15 2016.
'Liquid biopsies' could find signs of cancer before it shows up on traditional scans.
Researchers have discovered a new, non-invasive test that could detect breast cancer much earlier than currently-popular mammograms and breast exams.
With survival rates of breast cancer caught early sitting around 90 per cent, anything doctors can do for early detection is infinitely valuable.
Currently, women with breast cancer are given routine breast examinations and mammograms to check if their cancer has returned, but a new kind of blood test - called a 'liquid biopsy' - could put an end to lengthy and invasive procedures.
A liquid biopsy refers to testing a sample of blood either for circulating tumour cells or for tiny bits of the tumour genetic code (DNA) which have been released into the blood by degenerating cancer cells.
Professor Rik Thompson, National Breast Cancer Foundation researcher at Queensland University of Technology, said the test - currently still in the trial stage - could detect cancer before a patient displays any other symptoms.
Along with Professor Christobel Saunders, surgeon at the University of Western Australia and Royal Perth, Professor Thompson is excited at the prospect of using liquid biopsies not only to treat to detect breast cancer.
"We have reasons to believe [liquid biopsies] could be quicker than waiting for symptoms to appear, or something that shows up on a bone scan or a CT scan." Professor Thompson told The New Daily.
"This would show up sooner, allowing us to treat earlier or to change treatment if it's clear the tumour isn't responding to the current treatment."
Professor Thompson said there were currently around 30 clinical trials going on worldwide, including an ongoing French study that he hopes will prove detecting tumour cells early can save lives.
Currently, the test is through to be most useful for women who have had breast cancer in the past, as part of their ongoing check-ups to see if their cancer has returned, or isn't going away.
For breast cancer patients, the test will hopefully help detect whether breast cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the lungs, brains and bones before it would show up on x-ray - something that unfortunately often leads to death.
"At this point in time I don't think we can use it to screen for cancer routinely, but more for people who have had cancer to monitor what's going on," he said.
But Professor Thompson said tests for the regular population are a possibility once detection becomes more sensitive.
"There's a lot of optimism and a lot of interest", he said of the test, which he predicts will be available to the public in the next two to five years.
"I love love to say we'll see it in two years - and it's likely we will. But I don't it will be widely used for another five years."
For such an exciting test, it's hard not to wonder why researchers can't rush the trial period and have it on the market sooner rather than later.
"We need to know that there's a real benefit first," said Professor Thompson.
Unfortunately, the only completed research on survival rates after liquid biopsy detection failed to show any clear improvement, but Professor Thompson said the trial would be the first of many.