Women with breast cancer could be spared gruelling chemotherapy thanks to a new test.
Scientists used a computer to come up with an algorithm that predicts whether patient lives are threatened by the disease spreading to their organs.
The test is for women with breast cancer which has spread to their lymph nodes – the first sign of which is often a lump they discover under their armpit.
A study suggests a quarter of women with this type of breast cancer will not see it reach their organs within the next decade.
The algorithm, which analyses 40 distinctive patterns in their cells, is hoped to single these patients out so that they can be spared powerful chemotherapy drugs and the sickness and hair loss they cause.
Dr Anita Grigoriadis, who led the research from King’s College London, said: ‘By inspecting more features of the lymph node, we can separate the lymph-node positive breast cancer patients into a group who will develop distant metastasis quickly, and identify those patients who have very little risk of getting secondary cancers. We can therefore provide crucial information and might identify low-risk patients among a high-risk group.’
Breast cancer is no longer the death sentence it was decades ago, with more than 78 per cent of women surviving a decade later.
Around half of women whose cancer has spread to the lymph nodes under their arm will survive a decade after surgery and radiotherapy. However their odds are slashed if the cancer spreads to the organs – usually the lungs and liver. Only close to one in seven women in this position survive after five years.
Researchers created the test to determine which women were in danger of cancer spreading through their body, using lymph nodes and tumours removed in surgery.
Looking at samples from 309 breast cancer patients, treated in London between 1984 and 2002, they found around 40 patterns of cells. Five were important, they discovered, based on how the cancer had behaved in the women they looked at afterwards.
These patterns are easily spotted under a microscope and include the cluster of immune cells which can be seen around tumours.
However tell-tale patterns also occur, it was found for the first time, in lymph nodes which are unaffected by cancer and were also removed from women.
These lymph nodes appear rather like opened umbrellas, with circular ‘germinal centres’ on each panel of the umbrella.
But in women with cancer, the circles got larger and moved more to the centre – a sign that the nodes, which are glands that fight infection, were being called into action.
The five patterns, taken together, now help form a test which could be used, following larger studies, in hospitals to detect the women at risk of their cancer spreading.
The study, funded by Breast Cancer Now, is published in The Journal of Pathology: Clinical Research. Baroness Delyth Morgan, the charity’s chief executive, described the study as ‘highly exciting’.
© Daily Mail