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Breast cancer: Metal tests developed from geology could help improve screening

A metal detecting blood test could one day form part of a national screening programme for early signs of breast cancer.

Scientists have discovered that breast cancer cells contain high concentrations of zinc consisting of "light" atomic variants, or isotopes. They expect to find a corresponding isotopic signature in the blood that would provide a simple way to detect breast cancer before the formation of noticeable tumours.

The UK team borrowed techniques normally used by earth scientists to study climate change and planetary formation to investigate how the human body processes metals.

Lead researcher Dr Fiona Larner, from Oxford University's Department of Earth Sciences, said: "It has been known for over a decade that breast cancer tissues contain high concentrations of zinc but the exact molecular mechanisms that might cause this have remained a mystery.

"Our work shows that techniques commonly used in earth sciences can help us to understand not only how zinc is used by tumour cells but also how breast cancer can lead to changes in zinc in an individual's blood - holding out the promise of an easily detectable biomarker of early breast cancer."

She hoped that within 10 years the test would be used to screen all women in the UK for early signs of breast cancer. In the shorter term it was likely to be reserved for high-risk women with inherited breast cancer genes, such as BRCA1 or 2. Breast cells naturally take up zinc, but when they turn cancerous a faulty biological pathway causes them to hold on to higher amounts of the metal than normal.

Zinc is an essential trace element that has a number of vital functions in the body. It is important to the immune system, essential for cell division, and helps to maintain the structure of cells and organs.

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Many people take zinc supplements, but Dr Larner said this had no bearing on their risk of breast cancer.

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