The researchers, led by Mr Kelvin Gomez from the University of Wales College of Medicine, used three genes that have been shown in previous studies to be over-expressed in invasive breast cancer. These genes are called UROC28, CLSP (Calmodulin-like skin protein) and BCSG1 (Breast cancer specific gene). They tested the markers in 5mls samples of blood which had been spiked with varying amounts of breast cancer cells and found that they were able to detect as few as 15 cancer cells per ml of blood using all three markers individually.
Mr Gomez said: These markers were able to differentiate between samples with proven metastatic deposits and those that were free from cancer. Our results further indicate that, although individually these genes are capable markers for metastatic disease in breast cancer, their sensitivity and specificity are greatly enhanced when used in combination.
There are other ways of detecting small numbers of cancer cells in blood, but they usually involve lengthier processes, such as the addition of magnetic beads and so on. These new markers quicken the process without losing any of the sensitivity or specificity that is required of potential markers for disseminating disease.
However, he stressed that a lot more work needs to be done before this method could be used on patients in the clinic. Lets just say its the start of a very long race, but at least weve started, he concluded.