A blood test to detect breast cancer is on the horizon

Nine years ago, a young woman named Dharmica Mistry was standing in a lab in New South Wales, Australia, analysing strands of hair from cancer patients. She was using her own hair as what’s called a “negative control” (hair from a cancer-free person) as a comparison.

One day, a curious thing happened - Mistry’s hair had begun to show the same characteristics as the hair from the cancer patients. With no family history of breast cancer, there seemed no way to explain this bizarre result until Mistry remembered that she had coated her hair in olive oil to moisturise it.

What does oil have to do with cancer? According to Mistry, the answer could be everything.

Our bodies are made up of cells. Just as our skin stops certain bacteria from entering our body, each of these cells have a ‘cell wall’ which controls what can go in and out of it. These walls are made up of a type of fat called a ‘phospholipid’. It turns out that when a person gets cancer, it causes this fat to change – a change that could be identified by a simple blood test.

‘’It was a surreal moment,” said Dr Mistry, describing when the realisation sank in that she had inadvertently discovered a crucial piece of the breast cancer puzzle. ‘’As a scientist that eureka moment is what all the research and hours in the laboratory are for. I didn’t quite appreciate the moment until a little while after, when it all began to add up and all of a sudden we had a really unique and exciting opportunity ahead of us.’’

Fast forward to present day and Mistry, is Chief Scientist of biotech start up, Breast Cancer Associated Lipids (BCAL) Diagnostics that she co-founded along with Dr Peter French and two angel investors, the Hon Ron Phillips and Jayne Shaw, in 2010. The aim? To develop a simple, affordable, cost-effective universal blood test for the early detection of breast cancer that is available to all women and men regardless of age, race and geographic location.

The team is currently nearing the end of the blind test stage. If successful, they will then move into clinical trials and, eventually, commercialisation “where the real hard work begins,’’ according to Mistry.

Currently, the only way for cancer to be detected in younger women is from noticing a lump or change in the breast from a self-check performed by hand. (Young women’s breasts are denser than older women’s, which lowers mammogram accuracy. Yet in New Zealand, one woman a day is diagnosed below the age for free mammograms.) Literally leaving the detection of such a life-threatening disease in the hands of those at risk seems ludicrous in an age characterised by state-of-the-art technology.

If it works, the BCAL test, which proof-of-concept studies have suggested has a 90% accuracy rate (mammograms are 65-80% accurate) will take the guesswork out of breast cancer detection. It will also be a welcome alternative for women of all ages who find the physical process of mammograms uncomfortable, and for those who live in rural areas and have to travel great distances to have their mammogram.

BCAL is aiming to launch the test in 2018 in Australia. In the meantime, women should continue to conduct self-checks and have regular mammograms. Any changes should be showed to your doctor immediately.