Cancer Watch - January 2004

Originally published in January 2004 icon

Cancer Watch eye

Breast Cancer Test on its way

Scientists are working on a new, simpler test for breast cancer, enabling doctors to diagnose the disease using a scan taking just a few minutes.

In a report in the journal Medical Resonance in Medicine, Professor Michael Garwood and colleagues at the University of Minnesota, in the United States, used magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to identify breast cancers. MRS works in much the same way as an MRI scan using radio waves and high magnetic fields to produce an image of the organs inside the body, and differentiate between healthy and diseased tissue.

The clever extra is that the MRS can also measure, quantitatively by a spectroscopic technique, key chemicals in the body. In this test the MRS measures breast tissue levels of choline, a chemical found to be higher in malignant tissues. While further research is needed, the test could provide doctors with a new way of diagnosing breast cancer and eliminate the need for biopsies, which are both uncomfortable and feared by some experts to cause possible spread of cancers.

The researchers have used the test on 105 patients to date and are planning further tests to see if it as good as a biopsy in identifying breast cancer. "The technique can even measure the progression of treatment and we hope it will eventually be used to avoid unnecessary biopsy," said Professor Garwood.

Dr Michelle Barclay from Breakthrough Breast Cancer said, "Any advances that enable accurate diagnosis of breast cancer with less invasive methods will be welcome news - we look forward to seeing the results of this study."

Toxic Chemicals in us all

A number of toxic man-made chemicals were found in the blood of every person tested during a survey by an environmental pressure group, WWF. Their Contamination study discovered traces of chemicals ranging from pesticides to the chemicals added to some paints and fire retardants.

The tests commissioned by WWF looked for the presence of 77 different chemicals in 155 people tested across the UK. An average of 27 was found in the blood of each person tested across the UK, with readings ranging from nine to 49.

Chemicals that were looked for included pesticides like DDT and lindane and PCB’s from plastics, for example. Another group studied was PDBE’s commonly found in the home as flame retardants. 70 out of the 77 studied were found. Worryingly women who had had children and breast fed them had lower levels of certain chemical toxins indicating that they seem to be passed on to babies via breast feeding.

Global production of chemicals has grown from 1 million tones in 1930 to over 400 million tones today without too many checks on toxicity to humans and animals. The analysis was conducted by Lancaster University.

Interestingly two MSPs were among those tested and now Green MSPs want a debate on the issue in the Scottish Parliament. Labour MSP Sarah Boyack and the Scottish National Party’s Christine Grahame underwent the blood tests. Green MSPs have lodged a motion at Holyrood calling for a parliamentary inquiry.

Dr Richard Dixon, head of policy for WWF Scotland said, "There is very little information available about the safety and health risks posed by the vast majority of chemicals in use". One Scot was found to have the second highest level of PCB contamination in the UK.

Dr Dixon said some of the chemicals came from everyday materials such as paints, glues, toys, electrical goods, furniture, carpets and clothes. "Our contaminated blood is proof that it’s time for the government and chemical companies to phase out the production and use of these chemicals and develop new safe alternatives" he said.

Health spokeswoman Eleanor Scott said, "What is so alarming is that it is everyday products, things people find it almost impossible to avoid, as well as a legacy from the past that is contaminating people."

Breast Cancer "Spreading" Gene Identified

There has long been a theory that metastatic cells arise late in tumour progression. Now the latest Memorial Sloan-Kettering research shows that the clinical outcome of breast cancer patients can be predicted by a "poor-prognosis gene expression signature" in the primary tumour. It seems that a gene can be identified right from the outset, which will let you know whether eventual metastasis is likely or not. For more information, visit

Kick Start your immune system

Yet another cancer treatment hailed as a world breakthrough could be helping patients in as little as two years. This time the claim is from a small Melbourne bio-tech firm, Norwood Abbey, who have proudly announced it had secured the backing of major American drug company TAP Pharmaceuticals for an existing drug that rejuvenates the thymus.

The company said the deal should mean patients could get the treatment in two to three years.

The thymus is the central organ of the immune system but shrinks with age and is badly affected by chemotherapy and radiation therapy. By stimulating the thymus more T-Iymphocytes are produced which help track and destroy infecting cells, for example. Victoria state Premier Steve Bracks announced the breakthrough at the world’s biggest bio-tech conference, Bio2003, in June in Washington, saying that the treatment could prolong the lives of millions of people with cancer. The announcement followed successful human trials at the Alfred hospital. Further trials will start soon in Australia, the United States and Europe.

Skin Cancer - Worse to follow?

Women with common and usually treatable forms of skin cancer have double the risk of developing other subsequent unrelated cancers, according to a large study by Dr. Carol Rosenberg of Evanston-Northwestern Healthcare and her team at Northwestern University’s medical school. The skin cancer link was found for several malignancies, including cancer of the brain, breasts, liver, ovaries and uterus.

Previous studies have shown that men and women with skin cancer face an increased risk of skin cancer returning. Some studies also have found that people with non-melanoma skin cancer are prone to later developing non-skin cancers.

But according to the new report, involving 92,835 post-menopausal women, there was a clear increased risk of unrelated cancers associated with skin cancer. Rosenberg said she suspects her results would also apply to men, since previous studies involved both genders.

Of 7,685 women who had a mild form of skin cancer nearly 25 per cent developed a second cancer, yet amongst the 85,000 who had no first skin cancer the figure was just 11 per cent. The results appear in the January 2004 issue of Cancer, an American Cancer Society journal.

ED - Several Research studies (e.g. The Harvard Medical School 1999) have linked higher blood oestrogen levels to skin cancers and melanoma. So we are not at all surprised by the list of other second cancers as all are known to be oestrogen driven.

New Breast Cancer drug cuts risk of recurrence

by Nigel Hawkes, Health Editor~ The Times

A NEW cancer drug could halve the risk of a recurrence of breast cancer in older women, according to an international trial. So striking are the results that the trial has been stopped early and its results published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

It was decided that given the proven advantages it would have been unethical to continue a trial in which half the women were given the new drug, Ietrozole, and half a placebo. The drug will now be offered to all the women involved.

The results are likely to influence the treatment of breast cancer for tens of thousands of women, significantly increasing their chances of long-term survival.

All 5,187 post-menopausal women in the trial, led by the National Cancer Institute of Canada and supported by the drug company Novartis, had previously undergone surgery to remove breast tumours, followed by five years’ treatment with tamoxifen.

Earlier trials have shown that prolonging tamoxifen treatment for longer than five years had no additional benefit. Letrozole belongs to a new class of drugs that operate by suppressing production of the female hormone oestrogen. Several other trials are in progress to see if other similar drugs are equally effective. It works by suppressing the production of oestrogen, which can influence the spread of cancer, by more than 95 per cent.

The size of the effect was surprising. After just under two and a half years, results showed that 207 women had suffered a recurrence of their cancer, of which 75 were in the group given Ietrozole and 132 in the group given a placebo - a 43 per cent reduction in the risk. The team responsible for the trial, led by Paul Goss of the Princess Margaret Hospital, Toronto, estimated that this meant an improvement in the four-year disease-free survival rate from 87 per cent to 93 per cent.

The New England Journal of Medicine concluded that in women who were past the menopause "letrozole therapy significantly improves disease-free survival".

Professor Ian Smith, of the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, said: "This is one of the most important advances in the treatment of post-menopausal women with breast cancer."

While breast cancer remains a major killer, there are signs of progress. The most recent figures show that almost three quarters of patients in England are alive five years after diagnosis - just less than the European average of 76.1 per cent.

Death rates for breast cancer have fallen by about a third since 1990 - the principal reason is the use of hormonal treatments such as tamoxifen. Letrozole is already licensed for use in Britain at a cost of 83.16 for one month’s supply, ten times the price of tamoxifen. While the cost per patient is not huge, there are tens of thousands of women who could benefit from it so the total cost to the NHS could be large.

Without official approval, the drug is likely to be used less widely in Britain than in other countries, with the danger of "postcode" prescribing.

Professor Jack Cuzick, Director of Cancer Research UK’s Department of Epidemiology, Mathematics and Statistics, two weeks ago launched a trial of the AstraZeneca drug anastrozole (Arimidex) which seeks to test its protective effects on 10,000 women over ten years.

He said of today’s results: "They are exciting and point the way towards the future of breast cancer treatment."

The only drawback identified by the trial is that Ietrozole has side-effects, including an increased risk of osteoporosis. In the group taking the drug, 5.8 per cent were diagnosed with osteoporosis against 4.5 per cent of those on placebo.

Because the trial was terminated early, the long-term impact of these side-effects has not been fully assessed, according to two US specialists in the New England Journal of Medicine.

They accept that the organisers of the trial had no alternative but regret that the opportunity to assess fully the risks and benefits of the drug over five years had been lost.,,8122-849055,00.html

Healthy Homes Website

It’s that time again-windows close with a thump, the heating clicks on, and next thing you know, you’re living in a hotbed of pollution that could rival the smog in L.A.

Annie Berthold-Bond of Care2 suggests you add ten things for cleaner indoor air to your "Autumn To Do List".

Cancer Watch - March-April 2004
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