Alberta-made blood test could improve breast cancer screening, but when?

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‘More traction in other provinces’: Alberta-made blood test could improve breast cancer screening
A Calgary tech company is raising questions about how and when we start screening for breast cancer in Alberta. Just this fall, the province dropped the age for regular mammograms, from 50 to 45 years old. Sarah Offin speaks with local researchers about technology that could help detect breast cancer even earlier – Dec 13, 2022

At only 32 years old, Katie Smith-Parent found a lump. It was 13 years before screening for breast cancer typically begins for most Alberta women.

“I had thought it was nothing. I Googled it and thought maybe it was a fibroadenoma, which is really common in women in their 20s and 30s,” said Smith-Parent.

Several months later, under the guidance of a new physician, she followed up with a mammogram, which, likely due to the density typical in young breasts, came back clear.

It wasn’t until she had an ultrasound that she was diagnosed with Stage 2 cancer. She finished chemo last year.

But researchers behind ground-breaking technology developed in Calgary are hoping to streamline the screening process, providing a simple blood test that can detect breast cancer in the early stages.

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“We detected a unique signature for detecting an active breast cancer signature,” said Dr. Kenneth Fuh, one of the co-founders of Syantra. “We’ve processed more than 2,200 clinical samples.”

The results are over 90 per cent accurate, and available for purchase for those interested in a test, provided they have a signed doctor requisition.

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But the cost isn’t yet covered by the province or insurers, outside of health spending accounts. And doctors can be reluctant to sign unknown requisitions.

“We’ve got great interest of these tests in European markets,” said Fuh, referencing conversations this week with health authorities in Spain. “They are looking at national implementation of this test in their country.”

In a statement in response to Global News’ questions about the process of regulatory approval, the Alberta Ministry of Health said it has “met the company’s leaders to learn more about their test and explore opportunities for collaboration,” but there is not enough evidence in support of the test yet.

“Currently, there is insufficient evidence on the effectiveness of the test, used alone or as a supplemental test, for breast cancer screening,” it said. “As a result, no jurisdiction in Canada recommends the test as a valid screening modality for breast cancer.

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“However, we wish them well with the approval process and as always hope to use local products that meet the rigorous criteria for public use.”

For those like Smith-Parent, without symptoms or family history, electing for early screening isn’t always an obvious choice.

For now, she has a clean bill of health.

“The fact that I got diagnosed at Stage 2 and could go through treatment and be a survivor, is really different than if I had been diagnosed at Stage 4.”

Katie Smith-Parent finished chemotherapy last year following her stage-two cancer diagnosis.

But in addition to undergoing the physically strenuous process of chemo, Smith-Parent still faces other challenges related to her diagnosis.

Hormone suppressants to control estrogen in her body will complicate any desire to become pregnant. And then there’s the uncertainty of the cancer’s reappearance, which is monitored only by Smith-Parent’s self-exams, and annual mammograms and ultrasounds.

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That’s all part of the reason she is now campaigning, alongside Syantra, for more testing options, earlier.

“The earlier you can do any kind of detection, the more lives you can save,” said Smith-Parent.

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