Zinc could help researchers detect breast cancer sooner

Researchers from Oxford University are looking into ways to detect breast cancer before there are any physical symptoms (like swelling or a lump). According to Smithsonian magazine, this would allow doctors to catch it before it spreads – meaning less invasive treatment and a much better chance of recovery for patients.

In a small trial led by postdoctoral research associate Fiona Larner, a new test used the blood of 10 people, five of whom had breast cancer, five of whom were healthy. It analysed the difference in weight between zinc isotopes (a type of atom) at 100 times the resolution of standard testing, and showed that zinc isotopes consistently weighed less in the blood and breast tissue of people with breast cancer than in healthy patients.

Scientists have known for several years that there’s a link between zinc and breast cancer, but until now had no way of finding out who might be most at risk of developing the disease by studying the concentration and weight of the mineral in their blood. Now Larner and her team want to go on to develop a simple biomarker test that could detect breast cancer as easily as hospitals can test for anaemia.

To do so, she needs to understand more about how the proteins that turn into breast cancer process zinc. She estimates that it could take 10 years to make an easy and reliable test, but is confident that it’s possible, and that it could one day replace mammograms as the first step in diagnosing (or ruling out) breast cancer.

The same process could also be useful in early detection for test for Parkinson’s, which is associated with copper, and osteoporosis, where patients have low levels of calcium.

Image via University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources & Environment’s Flickr.

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