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Dr. Anthony Lucci, a professor of surgical oncology at the University of Texas, Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and his colleagues looked at 302 patients with operable breast cancer and examined them with a simple blood test.
Their previous research identified so-called circulating tumor cells in the blood of patients who had metastatic breast cancer, or breast cancer that has spread. The cells are shed by tumors and are thought to cause cancer if they latch on to another area in the body.
For this study, published in the June 5 issue of Lancet Oncology, the researchers wanted to know if these circulating cells could be found in patients at an earlier stage of the disease and whether or not the presence of cells could predict disease progression.
After examining the patients with a blood test, the researchers identified circulating tumor cells in 24 percent of the study group. Further analysis revealed the presence of the cells predicted disease progression and the patient’s overall survival rate. Fifteen percent of patients who tested positive for the cells had relapsing breast cancer, while 10 percent died during the four-year-study period. That compares to 3 percent of patients who didn’t test for the cells that relapsed and 2 percent that died during the study.