Test for breast cancer shows promise

BMJ 1998; 317 doi: (Published 08 August 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;317:368
  1. Jacqui Wise
  1. BMJ

    A non-invasive test for breast cancer has been developed that could eventually help to reduce the number of unnecessary biopsies for women with benign breast disease.

    The test is based on measuring breast electropotentials at the skin's surface. It is non-invasive and does not expose patients to ionising radiation and so could be used repeatedly without risk. In addition, the test result is immediate and objective.

    A multicentre European study involving 661 women scheduled for open biopsy found a highly significant trend of progressive electrical changes according to the proliferative characteristics of the biopsied tissue (Lancet 1998;352:359-63). In the study the test performed best in premenopausal women with palpable lesions. The authors say that the lack of discrimination for non-palpable lesions may be related to difficulty in placing the sensors in the correct place.

    Dr Jack Cuzick, head of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund's mathematics, statistics, and epidemiology laboratory, carried out an analysis of the findings. He found that when the depolarisation index was taken in conjunction with the age of the woman then the test had 55% specificity and 90% sensitivity. This means that more than half of the biopsies could have been avoided.

    Professor Ian Fentiman, an oncologist at Guy's Hospital and a coauthor of the study, said: “The largest part of my practice is treating women with suspicious lumps found during a physical examination. Most of these women will not ultimately have cancer, but this is often clear only after they undergo a range of diagnostic tests and, in some cases, biopsy. This is time consuming and expensive and creates enormous anxiety.” He added: “An approach which could avoid much of this testing would be very valuable, and I am encouraged by the promising results found in this study.”

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