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Detecting breast cancer 5 years before clinical signs

The possibility of an easy, non-invasive detection method arises.

Image source: Shutter_M/Shutterstock/Big Think
  • A blood test that spots breast cancer five years ahead of clinical signs could give new meaning to "early detection."
  • Auto-antibodies for tumor antigens predict the presence of the disease.
  • Researchers say the blood test could be clinic-ready in 4-5 years.

Researchers from the University of Nottingham have developed a method of blood screening they believe could ultimately lead to the detection of breast cancer five years before clinical indicators appear. Such extremely early detection would presumably offer patients and their doctors an unprecedented head start at preventing the disease's progression. The availability of such an advanced warning would be a potent addition to the growing arsenal of weapons against breast cancer that include a breast-cancer vaccine.

Antigens and their auto-antibodies

Antigens and T-cells

Image source: Juan Gaertner /Shutterstock

Antigens are substances produced by cells, including tumor cells. When an antigen comes into contact with other cells in the body, the immune system generates an antibody optimized specifically for that antigen called "auto-antibodies."

The team from Nottingham has found that the presence of tumor-associated antigens (TAAs) constitutes a reliable indicator of cancer. Likewise, the presence of an antigen's auto-antibody is a good indicator that the antigen, and thus a tumor, is present.

The researchers developed blood panels against which blood can be screened using protein microarray for auto-antibodies linked to TAAs associated with breast cancer tumors. The team was able to screen for 40 such antibodies overall, as well as 27 not associated with the disease, with each panel targeted to a subset of those.

The experiments

Image source: Victor Moussa/Shutterstock

The researchers from the Centre of Excellence for Autoimmunity in Cancer (CEAC) group at Nottingham's School of Medicine took blood samples from 90 breast cancer patients shortly after diagnosis, and from a control group of 90 volunteers not afflicted with the disease.

According to Daniyah Alfattani, one of the researchers, "The results of our study showed that breast cancer does induce auto-antibodies against panels of specific tumor-associated antigens. We were able to detect cancer with reasonable accuracy by identifying these autoantibodies in the blood."

The team focused on three panels: One with five TAAs, one with seven, and one with nine. The larger the panel, the more accurate the testing, as it turned out.

  • With the panel of five TAAs, breast cancer was detected in 29% of the samples from cancer patients, while 84% of the control samples were positively identified as being without cancer.
  • With seven TAAs, the cancer-detection rate rose to 35%, while the findings of no disease in the control group went down slightly to 79%.
  • A nine-TAA panel was similar, correctly detecting cancer in 37% of cancer patients, and its absence verified it in 79% of the control group.

Moving forward

Image source: Simon Annable/Shutterstock

While accurate cancer detection in roughly 30% of patients isn't anywhere near good enough for widespread use as a diagnostic tool, the researchers are nonetheless upbeat about the results. "We need to develop and further validate this test," says Alfattani. "However, these results are encouraging and indicate that it's possible to detect a signal for early breast cancer. Once we have improved the accuracy of the test, then it opens the possibility of using a simple blood test to improve early detection of the disease."

Further study is currently underway with 800 patients being tested using a panel of nine TAAs, and the researchers expect to see greater accuracy in this larger cohort.

If there's a chance of substantially improving accuracy in this approach to early detection, the benefits would be obvious. Says Alfattani, "A blood test for early breast cancer detection would be cost effective, which would be of particular value in low- and middle-income countries. It would also be an easier screening method to implement compared to current methods, such as mammography."

The researchers estimate that with full funding, a clinic-ready version of the test could be developed in four to five years.

The study was presented at the 2019 NCRI Cancer Conference in Glasgow, and NCRI CEO Iain Frame is impressed. "Early diagnosis using simple, non-invasive ways of detecting the first signs of cancer is a key strategic priority for NCRI and something we'd all like to see working in practice. The results from this pilot study for a blood test to detect early breast cancer are promising and build on this research group's expertise in other cancers, such as lung cancer. It's obviously early days but we look forward to seeing the results from the larger group of patients that are now being investigated."

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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