Computer Test Could Spot Early Signs of Breast Cancer

By Sherry Baker @SherryNewsViews
May 13, 2015

This computerized test, using images of breast cancer tumors along with statistical analyses, may spot early signs of breast cancer.

To help police locate clusters of illegal activity, criminologists devised statistical software that pinpoints criminal “hotspots” in a city. Now scientists have used this same kind of statistical software to locate other potential dangers — in women’s breasts.  

An innovative computerized test, developed by scientists at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in London, uses images of breast cancer tumors combined with statistical analyses to measure breast “hotspots” where the immune system is waging a strong reaction to breast cancer cells. More immune cells clustered together around breast cancer cells indicates a more intense immune response.  

“Our research is aiming to develop completely new ways of telling apart more and less aggressive cancers, based on how successful the immune system is in keeping tumors in check,” said Yinyin Yuan, PhD, who heads Computational Pathology and Integrative Genomics at ICR. “The test is the first objective method of measuring the strength of a patient’s immune response to their tumor. Its automated analysis could complement existing methods where pathologists examine tumor samples under the microscope to gain a sense of whether there is a strong immune response.”

The researchers used this new approach to analyze tumor samples from 245 women with estrogen receptor negative (ER negative) breast cancer. The more common estrogen positive breast cancer is fueled by the hormone estrogen and can often be successfully treated with estrogen blockers. However, these drugs aren’t effective for ER negative breast cancer, making it difficult to treat.  

Women whose ER negative cancers were associated with more immune hotspots experienced a significantly longer time without their cancer spreading, compared to other ER negative breast cancer patients with fewer hotspots. That suggests measuring the strength of a patient’s immune response to their tumor can reveal whether a malignancy is being held in check and which patients need more intensive treatment to combat aggressive disease.

“By analyzing the complex ways in which the immune system interacts with cancer cells, we can split women with breast cancer into two groups, who might need different types of treatment,” said Paul Workman, ICR’s chief executive. “The interaction between the immune system and cancer is extraordinarily complex, and something we are only just beginning to understand. But just as there are high hopes for immunotherapy as a future cancer treatment, we also believe that this new way of measuring immune reaction could be used to tailor treatment more effectively to individual patients.”

There is other hopeful news for women with difficult to treat ER negative breast cancer. Research by Jennifer Richer, PhD, of the University of Colorado, and colleagues found that a variety of breast cancers, including those that are estrogen receptor negative, may be fueled in part by the hormone androgen. Preliminary studies showed the androgen-blocking drug enzalutamide decreased tumor growth by 85 percent in both estrogen receptor positive and estrogen negative breast cancers.


March 30, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN