A lump in the breast could be harmless or dangerous. Now, scientists in Singapore believe they may have found an easier and less painful alternative to surgery to tell the difference.
They have found a gene that is mutated in about 60 per cent of fibroadenomas, or benign breast tumours. These are the most common breast tumours in women under 30 years old.
As the specific mutation has not been seen in malignant breast cancers, it could be used to help determine whether a lump is dangerous, said the scientists.
Singapore General Hospital's (SGH) head of pathology Tan Puay Hoon said that doctors can typically "feel the lump and... make a presumptive diagnosis of whether it is benign or otherwise".
"But in order to confirm it, we need to look at the lump's cells or tissue under a microscope," she said. This involves inserting a needle into the breast lump to obtain tissue or cells, or surgery to excise the lump for microscopic examination.
It is hoped that this could instead be carried out through a procedure that is as simple as a blood test.
"We believe we will be able to use this gene as an adjunctive test so patients may be able to avoid biopsy or excision," she added, estimating that such a test may be available within three years.
There are about 3,000 fibroadenoma cases in Singapore each year. Worldwide, it affects about one in 10 women.
The team of scientists behind the discovery were from SGH, Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School and National Cancer Centre Singapore.
Professor Patrick Tan of Duke-NUS said a vast body of research showed that the gene MED12 was "very rarely" found to be mutated in malignant breast cancers.
The scientists said their discovery could be used to create drugs to reduce or eliminate the benign tumours, which may nonetheless cause discomfort to women. They are also planning to look into MED12's role in other types of breast tumours.
This article was first published on July 23, 2014.
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