According to the medical industry, mammograms are a must for early detection of breast cancer. The benefits of early detection is well worth the risks of being irradiated on a regular basis.
What if there was a much simpler and safer way to test for this disease?
Well, a few days ago on Radio Australia I heard a segment on Australia’s “Smart 100 Awards.” In fact, the number one “smart idea” was a simple procedure to help in the discovery of breast cancer.
This isn’t a new story. In fact, 10 YEARS AGO, a retired professor of physics named Dr. Veronica James published an article on the subject in Nature magazine. As reported on March 4, 1999 by ABC (Australia):
C. Johnson, The Lab
A single pubic hair may provide all the information needed for early detection of breast cancer, preliminary studies by an Australian scientist suggest.Hair from breast cancer patients has a different molecular structure to hair from healthy subjects, Dr Veronica James and colleagues report in the current issue of the journal Nature.Moreover, all hair samples from women who were healthy but carried the BRCA1 gene – which is associated with a high risk of breast cancer – showed the same structural anomaly, raising the possibility of an early diagnostic test.
The changes in molecular structure showed up when hairs were bombarded with a beam of highly focused x-ray beams, generated in synchrotron facilities in Japan and the USA. A synchrotron is a device that accelerates protons or electrons in a magnetic field. When the accelerated protons or electrons are suddenly stopped, the energy is released as intense x-ray beams.
Initially Dr James studied scalp hair only. When the data looked interesting she set about looking at a larger sample of hairs, but on that occasion the results were inconsistent.
“We saw all sorts of odd-bod changes. But it looked like some of the hair had had treatment. One sample was black, white and yellow.”
When she eliminated hair samples that had been permed less than three months before collection, the pattern was clear.
To avoid problems caused by hair treatment, she approached Professor John Kearsley, an oncologist at St George Hospital in Sydney, and asked if patients could supply pubic hair samples.
If a reliable test proved possible, the cost could be as low as $20 a sample.
“You would just put a few hairs in an envelope. You wouldn’t need access to a mammography machine.”
Imagine that. No mammography machine. No pain, no radiation. And the original testing was done on machines in Japan and here in the good old U.S. of A.
10 years later…
I wake up to hear the interview with Dr. Peter French, the Chief Scientist at Fermiscan, Ltd., who describes the whole process again. This is the NUMBER ONE innovation honored in Australia this year. And, there is actually a TEST now According to the Fermiscan website, the company has already completed a “2,000 patient trial and has commenced a clinical study using the Fermiscan Test in conjunction with current screening to assess the use of the test by physicians in a clinical setting.”
Here’s the transcript of the interview:
8 June 2009
Hair Test to Detect Breast Cancer
How a strand of hair can test for breast tumours
Contact: Dr. Peter French, Chief ScientistFermiscan Holdings Ltd
Level 5, 48 Hunter Street, Sydney, NSW 2000International Telephone: +61 2 9245 4460Email: firstname.lastname@example.orgWebsite: http://www.fermiscan.com.au
DESLEY BLANCH : A revolutionary test that detects the first signs of breast cancer from a few strands of a woman’s hair was named as the most innovative product in Australia in the inaugural Smart 100 Awards. Here’s how it works. The Australian researchers report that hair from women with breast cancer can be distinguished from hair obtained from women without the disease — by exposing hair samples to high-powered X-rays from a synchrotron particle accelerator.
When hair is exposed to x-rays, the radiation is defracted in a distinctive pattern by the alpha-keratin that forms hair.
Fermiscan’s test is based on technology developed by Veronica James, a retired physics professor from the University of New South Wales in Sydney and from whom the company has acquired the patent rights.
Dr Peter French is chief scientist at Fermiscan Holdings. Here is part of an interview he gave me last year, where he explains X-ray defraction and how its pattern differs between normal hair and hair from women with breast cancer.
DR PETER FRENCH : X-ray diffraction is really sending X-ray particles through substances, often biological substances such as hair or crystals of proteins or DNA and, as they go through, some of those particles are deflected by the underlying structures of the substance that they hit. So in the case of hair, they’re deflected by as you said the alpha-keratin that makes up the hair fibre.
Most go straight through, but a few are deflected and after they’re deflected or they bounce off the underlying structures, they end up interfering with each other and causing a distinctive pattern of, mainly, arcs. So you see a picture of a circle in the middle with a whole lot of arcs around it and the arcs reflect the spacings of the underlying structures of the hair.
Now this has been a technique that has been used to look at hair structure for probably 50 years, so there’s nothing new in that. What was new was that the advent of the Synchrotron technology, which was really available from the late 90s enabled Dr James to show that in some cases, that women had an extra additional feature in the pattern, which wasn’t an arc it was actually a circle and this circle appeared in the hair from women who had breast cancer and she published this originally in “Nature” in 1999 and that was really how the work started.
DESLEY BLANCH : And, how early do you believe your test could detect this disease?
DR PETER FRENCH : We’re still working on that. So far though, we know that we can detect cancers that are at least 9 millimetres in size and probably smaller, and that’s certainly, usually below the level that a woman can feel the cancer with breast self-examination, for example.
DESLEY BLANCH : And where’s the hair cut from and how much hair is required for the test?
DR PETER FRENCH : We need about 20 strands or fibres of hair and it’s cut from the back of the head, usually behind the ear, which is the area of the hair which is usually less environmentally damaged. Some environmental damages which can cause us problems in the tests include dyeing and perming of the hair, and therefore we need about four weeks of regrowth post any dyes or perms so that we can get an accurate result with the test. So hair is simply cut from behind the head and we examine the part of the hair very close to the scalp.
DESLEY BLANCH : And what does breast cancer do to the hair structure?
DR PETER FRENCH : Well, this is still an area that we’re trying to understand. The mechanism would be something along the lines we propose that the breast cancer itself secretes a range of cytokines, growth factors and other proteins that can cause a change in the way that the hair follicle works and it does this by secreting these proteins and other molecules into the blood stream. The blood stream contacts the hair follicle and we believe that some of these molecules can cause a change in the way the follicle works and the way that it puts out the highly ordered normal strands of hair.
DESLEY BLANCH : And do we understand the reason for the ring pattern?
DR PETER FRENCH : Again, this is an area that we’re investigating. The ring usually means that there’s a disordering of an ordered crystalline-like pattern and so what we believe is that it’s likely that the normal highly ordered arrays of alpha-keratin filaments that are present in the hair are disrupted in some way by the presence of the cancer secreting these molecules into the blood stream.
DESLEY BLANCH : Fermiscan Holdings’ Chief Scientist Dr. Peter French describing their breast cancer test which was voted in at Number One in Australia’s Smart 100 Awards.
So the question becomes: when does this great idea make it’s way over here? And, if there ARE trials one of these days, how long with the FDA drag its feet in approving such a test? Or will this major breakthrough die overseas at the behest of our wonderful, profit-oriented “health care system”? It will be ironic if women here are deprived of this test, considering that the initial research by Dr. James was run on machines in Japan and HERE, in the U.S.
Go visit the Fermiscan website and read the details of the trial and look at the simple charts. It seems that for women under 70, the sensitivity of the test is about 74%. This is only 4% lower than mammography and ultrasound combined. (Ultrasound and mammograms alone are only about 50%. Sensitivity refers to the ability to actually CORRECTLY detect cancer.
Sounds pretty darned good to me for a test which involves snipping a few hairs…
Filed under: Current Politics, Life | Tagged: alpha-keratin in hair, Australia's Smart 100 Awards, breast cancer, cytokines, Dr. Peter French, Dr. Veronica James, FDA, Fermiscan Holdings Ltd., Fermiscan Test, growth factors, hair follicles, mammograms, mammography, Nature magazine, proteins, Radio Australia, synchrotron particle accelerator, Synchrotron technology, test sensitivity, ultrasound, X-ray defraction | 14 Comments »