An Oklahoma City doctor is working with an international research group to develop a blood test that may find signs of breast cancer which mammograms overlook.
Alan Hollingsworth, M.D., medical director of Mercy Women’s Center, in collaboration with a team from the University of Ferrara, founded in 1391 in northeastern Italy, are hoping to develop the screening test by drawing from the bank of blood samples collected at Mercy Women’s Center from 1,600 volunteer patients. The first shipment of blood samples was recently sent to Italy to begin the research project.
Studies show that mammograms reveal only about half of detectable breast cancers. The blood test, currently under study, would tell physicians whether or not they need to take a closer look using a breast MRI, a more expensive screening than a mammogram.
“Insurance doesn’t always pay for an MRI as a screening tool. It’s expensive for all patients to receive both a mammogram and an MRI each time they’re screened for breast cancer,” says Dr. Hollingsworth. “This blood test would complement mammograms at a lower cost than an MRI, reserving the MRI for instances when mammograms were negative and the blood tests were positive. Currently, guidelines tell us to rely on risk factors to select patients for screening MRI, but the majority of women who develop breast cancer have none of the conventional risks. A blood test could make the process efficient and available for all women, by properly selecting patients for MRI.”
The blood test screens tiny pieces of genetic make-up, called microRNAs. The small RNAs have been called the “body’s master switches,” and are being researched worldwide for their potential role in therapies and diagnostic tools to fight cancer and other disease states.
“So far, there has been only preliminary work done with microRNAs and breast cancer,” says Dr. Hollingsworth. “It’s a relatively new technology because we didn’t know microRNAs had an important role in gene regulation until about 10 years ago. Our collaborator is Dr. Manuela Ferracin, one of the world authorities on microRNA, and we are hopeful for progress.”
While these new technologies are being developed, mammography remains today’s best screening option.
“The scary truth is, the majority of breast cancers could be detected earlier, even with regular mammograms,” says Dr. Hollingsworth. “Mammograms are vital and are the best first-step screening tool, for now. With the proposed blood test, we hope to improve early detection through more aggressive screening that is focused on the correct patients at the correct time.”
Oklahoma law ensures that private health plans offer coverage for breast cancer screening, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). The Sooner State’s law is one of the more generous in the nation, requiring insurance coverage for baseline mammograms between the ages of 35 and 39, and annual mammograms for those ages 40 and older.
Mercy is the eighth largest Catholic health care system in the U.S. and serves more than 3 million people annually. Mercy includes 31 hospitals, more than 200 outpatient facilities, 38,000 co-workers and 1,500 integrated physicians in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Mercy also has outreach ministries in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. For more about Mercy, visit www.mercy.net.