Breast cancer

Updated 09 November 2017

Breast cancer shows up in hair

Hair from women with breast cancer can be distinguished from hair obtained from women without the disease, researchers in Australia report.

When hair is exposed to X-rays, the radiation is diffracted in a distinctive pattern by the alpha-keratin that forms hair, the researchers explain in the International Journal of Cancer. Dr Gary L. Corino and Dr Peter W. French, based at Fermiscan Ltd in Sydney, used the technique to look at samples of hair from 13 patients diagnosed with breast cancer and 20 healthy subjects.

Hair was cut as close to the skin as possible to obtain samples of the most recent hair growth. The investigators "successfully and consistently generated the basic alpha-keratin X-ray diffraction pattern in every hair sample."

Ring on hair shows cancer
Hair from the breast cancer patients produced the same features "with the only difference being the superimposition of a new feature." This was a distinctive low-intensity ring.

This ring sign was fairly accurate in identifying breast cancer. It missed one of the breast cancer patients, and showed up as a false-positive in three of the healthy subjects.

The researchers went on to study a length of hair representing 6 months' growth from a breast cancer patient whose hair fell out following chemotherapy. X-ray diffraction at three points along the hair showed clear evidence of the ring at the position furthest from the hair root, a fainter ring at the middle point, and complete absence of the ring close to the root.

"This progressive reduction in the intensity of the ring appears to correlate with the patient's course of treatment and possibly indicates the eradication of the cancer as a result of that treatment," Corino and French suggest.

As for the reason for the ring pattern, they suggest it may represent "incorporation of extraneous lipid material into the fibre as a result of the presence of a tumour." It may also be that the disease affects hair follicles in some way.

Further testing is needed to establish the accuracy of this methodology as a diagnostic test for breast cancer, they conclude. - (Reuters Health)

SOURCE: International Journal of Cancer, February 15, 2008.


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Dr Gudgeon qualified in Birmingham, England, in 1968. She has more than 40 years experience in oncology, and in 1994 she founded her practice, Cape Breast Care, where she treats benign and malignant breast cancers. Dr Boeddinghaus obtained her qualification at UCT Medical School in 1994 and her MRCP in London in 1998. She has worked extensively in the field of oncology and has a special interest in the hormonal management of breast cancer. She now works with Dr Gudgeon at Cape Breast Care. Read more.

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