By: Jean Johnson for Fibroids1
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The Breast Cancer Research Program IDEA award has granted the University of Michigan almost a half million dollars for cutting-edge research in breast cancer testing. The U of M team under principal investigator Joerg Lahann will use the funds over the next three years to develop a nanotechnology breath meter aimed at detecting breast cancer.
|Statistics for breast cancer show the importance of early detection|
Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among American women, except for skin cancer. It is second only to lung cancer as the most common cause of death from cancer among women.
According to the U.S. Cancer Statistics: 2002 Incidence and Mortality report, which includes incidence data for about 93 percent of the U.S. population and mortality data for the entire country, more than 180,000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002. More than 41,000 died from the disease.
Although the breast cancer screening rate for the general U. S. population is about 70 percent, according to the 2000 National Health Interview Survey, breast cancer screening rates are 71 percent for white women, 68 percent for African American women, 52 percent American Indian or Alaska Native women, 59 percent for Asian women, and 61 percent for Hispanic and Latino women.
The survey also reports that only 38 percent of the uninsured women interviewed reported having received mammography screening within the last two years. Only 35 percent of the women with no usual source of care reported having received a mammogram within the last two years.
The Center for Disease Control has a National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program helps low-income, uninsured, and under-served women gain access to lifesaving screening programs for early detection of breast and cervical cancers.
When you think nanotechnology, think teeny tiny. It is an already blossoming field and refers to a wide range of scientific or technological projects that focus on phenomena or properties of the nanometer scale (around 0.1-100nm).
Long-range goals are that the nanotechnology device would eventually be available over-the-counter and women would be able to tell simply by breathing into the highly-sophisticated meter whether or not they had breast cancer. The method under investigation is highly attractive because it will provide an inexpensive, early detection route to identifying breast cancers.
Lahann is an assistant professor of chemical engineering and does not have a background in breast cancer research. Nonetheless, the chemical engineer understands the nanotechnology well and pursued the possibility that capturing and analyzing elements in a woman’s breath could indicate whether or not she has breast cancer.
For the techies in the crowd, here’s the dizzying science behind the game.
“The cornerstone of the device and what makes it possible,” said a University of Michigan press release about the project, “is the switchable surface technology developed in Lahann’s lab with a post doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“The IDEA proposal states that the switchable surfaces have molecularly designed sites that will attract certain metabolites indicative of breast cancer. These sites are actually little nanopockets about 6.4 nm2 in size, that interact with oil and water. The metabolites are also very small, and they are attracted to the oil in the water pockets.”
According to Lahann, the idea materialized after one of his graduate students, David Peng, found two papers that showed certain molecules called metabolites which could mark breast cancer, are present in the breath and in urine. “We realized,” Lahann said, “that if one could put these molecules in a screening platform, they might develop a noninvasive, quick and inexpensive over-the-counter breast cancer screening test.”
Finding an easier and more reliable way than mammograms to detect breast cancer has been long in the works as Michael Phillips, M.D. and author of the 2003 paper, “Volatile Markers of Breast Cancer in the Breath,” published in The Breast Journal knows all too well. When Phillips was working on a fellowship in the mid-1970s at the University of California in San Francisco, he read a Linus Pauling paper that demonstrated that the human breath contains around 200 compounds. As Phillips, who today is Clinical Professor of Medicine at New York Medical College, told Scientific American, “I thought: if all of these compounds are there, they must be signaling something. This grabbed my attention, and I’ve been pursuing it since.”
The idea of using breath to detect illness is not new and has been in the medical literature since Hippocrates. It is common today, for example, for emergency medical personnel to rely on odors on the breath to detect problems with diabetics.
Phillips’ first foray into the world of detecting disease via the breath was aimed at heart transplant patients and detecting organ rejection. He has also worked in the area of lung cancer before focusing his attention on breast cancer with the publication of a 2003 paper in The Breast Journal.
On the latter front, Phillips’ team obtained breath samples from 200 women with abnormal mammograms and biopsies read by two pathologists. Ultimately only 51 of the women actually had breast cancer. The results of testing with the breath meter matched the biopsies and mammogram test results with a 94.1 percent accuracy rate.
Despite favorable results in this pilot project, Phillips’ method of detecting “volatile organic compounds” in the breath has not enjoyed wide acceptance in the medical community. His small company, Menssana, operates on slender resources and thus far work undertaken there has not been successfully replicated by other laboratories.
As Research Continues, Mammograms and Manual Exams are the Best Bet
“The size and how far it has spread are the most important factors in predicting the prognosis or outlook for chances of survival of a woman with this disease,” states the American Cancer Society (ACS) Web site dedicated to breast cancer. “Women who are 40 and older should have a screening mammogram every year and should continue to do so for as long as they are in good health.
“Finding a breast cancer as early as possible improves the likelihood that treatment will be successful. Most doctors feel that early detection tests for breast cancer save many thousands of lives each year, and that many more lives could be saved if even more women and their healthcare providers took advantage of these tests.”