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Professor John Sloane
"A lot more work needs to be done"
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Wednesday, 12 April, 2000, 17:33 GMT 18:33 UK
Breast cancer 'may be blocked'
Breast scan
At present breast scans are used to detect cancer
A discovery about the way breast cancer develops may eventually enable doctors to combat the disease at its earliest stage.

Researchers have discovered it is possible to identify women at risk of breast cancer up to 15 years before they start to develop the disease.

They believe the discovery should eventually make it possible to treat women at this stage and thus remove the threat of developing cancer.

This research could eventually enable the progression of the disease to be intercepted through the use of hormonally active drugs

Professor John Sloane, University of Liverpool

The researchers studied a special type of cell known as an oestrogen receptor cell.

These cells make up 10% of cells in the breast, but 80% of breast cancer cells.

In women at risk of developing breast cancer, the researchers have discovered that these cells begin to behave abnormally long before cancer develops.

This is because these women are over-sensitive to oestrogen, the female hormone which has long been linked to female cancers.

The discovery had been made by a team from the University of Liverpool and Clatterbridge Hospital in Wirral, Merseyside, who have been working on the programme for three years.

Excessive division

Professor John Sloane, who heads the team, said: "We discovered that at a very early stage, sometimes 10 or 15 years before the cancer develops, the oestrogen receptor cells, instead of behaving normally to make other cells divide, in fact divides itself and this excessive division can, in some cases, eventually lead to breast cancer."

Professor Sloane added it was too early to say whether sensitivity to oestrogen was genetic.

He said: "What is important is that we have identified the abnormal behaviour, which is a major breakthrough."

Professor Sloane said there was very strong evidence that normal breast cells do not change into cancers in one step, but pass through a series of intermediate stages.

He said: "This research could eventually enable the progression of the disease to be intercepted through the use of hormonally active drugs."

The team now need to raise £1m to carry out clinical trials before women can be screened across the country.

Women identified as being at risk could be treated with the drug tamoxifen.

Dr Lesley Walker, of the Cancer Research Campaign, said: "This is very interesting research which clearly needs to be developed.

"The potential is there to identify women at increased risk and to target prevention at that group."

Dr John Toy, Imperial Cancer Research Fund¿s medical director said: "A great deal more research is required, firstly to provide further insight into the role of these abnormal cells in breast cancer development and secondly to develop methods of identifying high-risk women and monitoring them using non-invasive techniques."

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23 Sep 98 | Medical notes
Breast cancer factfile
11 Apr 00 | Health
Drug hope for cancer patients
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