This Simple Urine Test Could Revolutionize Breast Cancer Detection

The less invasive, the better.

When it comes to cancer, the earlier it is detected the better.

Early detection allows doctors to attack a much smaller number of cells, and dramatically increases the success of removing all of the cancer with minimum invasion of the patient. Unfortunately, people generally don't start showing symptoms in the early stages, and by the time they do seek medical attention the disease has already been given a chance to progress.

While it might seem like diagnostic tests should be given as a precautionary measure even when there's no sign of disease, these tests are typically too invasive and expensive to be given without a prior cause for concern. Where breast cancer is concerned, mammograms are extremely uncomfortable and can be inconclusive for women with large or thick-tissued breasts. Thankfully, researchers are hard at work developing less invasive cancer screenings that can be done inexpensively, getting patients in for more thorough testing sooner.

Researchers at the University of Freiburg in Germany have recently found that early breast cancer can be detected in a simple urine test.

The study, published in the scientific journal BMC Cancer, was based on the detection of certain biomarkers called microRNAs, which play a role in gene expression. Their study found this test to be 91% accurate in detecting the factors associated with early breast cancer.

"We discovered that the microRNA profile in the urine is modified in a characteristic way in the urine of test subjects with breast cancer," senior author Elmar Stickeler explained in a press release. "MicroRNAs should thus be suitable in principle for a breast cancer test. Our method therefore led to highly accurate diagnoses."

It’s very encouraging that such great results can be found with a urine test, as opposed to blood or tissue samples.

Urine samples are really easy to obtain, since dramatically fewer people are afraid of peeing in a cup, versus getting blood drawn with a needle or tissue biopsied. It's also a lot easier to do multiple tests. This means that more people would be more likely to actually undergo the testing.

"Our method could encourage more women to undertake an examination of this kind, enabling us to detect breast cancer earlier," Stickeler continued. "The earlier breast cancer is detected, the better we can treat it. Today the disease is treatable in most cases if it is detected early on."

However, don't expect to see your physician ordering this screening quite yet. There is still a lot more work to do.

The study looked at 24 women with breast cancer at various stages and compared their prior urine samples to 24 healthy women. For starters, it's a pretty small sample group. Looking back in this way means they were able to determine commonalities between the women with breast cancer during the early stages, but that's not the same as looking at a urine sample and accurately predicting who will develop disease. 

Of course, these concerns don't invalidate the study at hand. This proof of concept is vitally important to the larger and more in depth studies that are required in the future to bring a potentially lifesaving diagnostic tool to the world.

[Image credit: Jani Bryson/iStockphoto]