Cancer Screening Research. Part 1

The Ultimate Treatment Is Catching It Early, Researchers Say

Just 20 years ago, leukemia, Hodgkin’s Disease and testicular cancer were devastating, often deadly diagnoses.

The advent of sophisticated cancer therapies and the promise of high-tech treatments such as stereotactic radiosurgery are extending lives and transforming once nearly untreatable cancers from death sentences into winnable wars.

But one crucial piece of the puzzle remains the same.

“The earlier you catch cancer, the better you can treat it,” said Richard Cote, M.D., a professor of pathology and urology at the University of Southern California Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center in Los Angeles. “Screening is so important.”

And, like their counterparts developing new treatment strategies, Cote and other researchers are finding new methods and tools to catch cancer early. Many techniques revealed in recent years are giving hope to those suffering from a variety of cancers.

Breast Cancer Hide and Seek
Cote and his team, culled from USC and the International Breast Cancer Study Group, have turned their attention to breast cancer, which will account for an estimated 182,800 new cases in 2000. He is working on a sensitive test he believes discovers hidden cancer cells in women with breast cancer more effectively than existing methods. This would help doctors predict which women will develop metastatic tumors.

“The problem with cancer is that is spreads,” said Cote, whose findings were published in the September 1999 issue of The Lancet. “It is cancer metastases that kill us and that are the hardest to treat.”

His test, which is in international trials, requires mixing two antibodies, which are highly accurate in detecting proteins that are present in breast cancer cells but absent in normal cells. The antibodies are placed on lymph node tissue routinely removed during breast cancer surgery. If cancer cells are present, they will be visible to a pathologist under the microscope, even in numbers as low as 1 to 5 cancer cells per 100 cells, Cote says.

The test will help cancer patients in two ways. It may detect the potential for metastases better than existing tests, and it may predict which women will not have any metastases.

“It may help identify women with breast cancer who can be spared the side effects and expense of chemotherapy,” Cote said, noting most breast cancer patients are placed on hormone or chemotherapy regimens after surgery.

Cote says this method appears to work with lymph node tissue, bone marrow and blood. Other researchers are working on possible applications for detecting melanoma and colorectal cancers. The test is used regularly at some U.S. cancer centers and is available commercially.

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