With just a simple and affordable blood test, a group of researchers claims that relapse may be identified early in patients who have been successfully treated for breast cancer.

Modern medicine continues to be baffled by the possible occurrence of relapse in cancer survivors. In a new study conducted by researchers from the Institute of Cancer Research in London, a circulating tumor, also known as ctDNA, which may give information if residual cancer cells still exist, were used as the basis of their research. The said blood marker may help clinicians predict the potential recurrence of cancer even after successful treatments.

The scientists created a personalized ctDNA blood test to monitor for cellular changes in patients with early-stage breast cancer, who have received either surgery, chemotherapy or other treatments. A total of 55 patients were included in the study and were all identified to have a high risk of relapse because of their tumor size. The scientists then studied the DNA of the tumor and track for the same mutations/ changes in the blood.

The findings of the study, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, show that the participants who were detected to have the same DNA tumor mutations circulating in the blood were 12 times more likely to have cancer relapse compared to those who tested negative. Out of the 15 patients who did have a relapse, 12 were detected by the study. The other three patients developed cancers that have spread to the brain, where a blood-brain barrier may have impeded the residual cancer cells to circulate in the bloodstream. The researchers also added that relapse may be identified eight months on the average before clinical presentation of cancer occurs.

"The key question is are we identifying that these women are at risk of relapse early enough that we could give treatments that could prevent the relapse?" researcher Dr Nicholas Turner told the BBC News website. This question was not tackled in the study and thus must be investigated in the future. Nonetheless, he adds that this study was able to showcase a potential concept that may be applied to any type of cancer that has already underwent initial treatment and carries a strong risk for relapse.

The researchers did not inform the patients regarding the findings of the study as doing so would be considered unethical, given that the intervention utilized still have unproven effects. But the positive impact of the study results cannot be hindered as early detection of cancer may determine the need for early treatments and enhance the overall prognosis and survival rate of patients.

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