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New breast pap smear detects early cellular changes; May prevent onset of breast cancer

DURHAM, N.C. -- Long before a woman feels an ominous lump in her breast, Victoria Seewaldt, M.D., can test her for subtle signs that breast cancer may be brewing in a few errant cells amidst thousands of healthy ones. Never before has such a possibility existed, and Seewaldt is brimming with excitement.

"This is potentially the 'breast pap smear' that we never had before," said Seewaldt, a scientist and breast oncologist at the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center. "Just as we do with a cervical pap smear, we can now survey cells from the whole breast, examine them under the microscope and test for early changes that often precede breast cancer. Then we can give women a preventive agent to see if we can eradicate her abnormal cells and thus prevent cancer from developing."

The new test, developed at University of Kansas Medical Center and refined at the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center, will be undergoing clinical trials at three centers nationwide. It is far more sensitive than a mammogram because a pathologist analyzes each cell for specific molecular changes that are common to many breast cancers, said Seewaldt, director of Duke's new Breast Health Clinic. It is especially useful for detecting changes in dense breasts, which are typically quite difficult to image using mammography.

In the test, physicians use a slender needle to extract cells from segments of the entire breast. Doctors then test each breast cell for specific genetic changes, as well as for abnormally shaped cells that are deemed "atypical."

Carol Fabian, M.D., at the University of Kansas Medical Center, has shown that even a smattering of atypical cells confers a four-fold increase in a woman's risk of breast cancer. And many scientists have linked specific gene alterations with the development of breast cancer. But further than that, scientists are unclear as to how breast cancers arise.

The new "breast pap smear" will help characterize a cell as it transforms
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Contact: Becky Levine
levin005@mc.duke.edu
919-684-4148
Duke University Medical Center
4-Mar-2004


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