MONDAY, April 4 (HealthDay News) -- Examining cells from a
woman's breast milk may help evaluate future breast health, new
"It looks as if we can use the cells from breast milk to assess breast cancer risk," said Dr. Kathleen Arcaro, an associate professor of veterinary and animal sciences at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
She is to present her findings Monday at the annual meeting of
the American Association for Cancer Research in Orlando, Fla.
For the study, she collected breast milk from 271 women in the
Most of the women had registered with the Love/Avon Army of
Women, indicating they were willing to engage in breast cancer
research. Others were recruited from doctors' offices or cancer
clinics. All had either undergone a biopsy of the breast to check
for cancer, or were scheduled for one.
Arcaro evaluated breast milk samples from the biopsied and
non-biopsied breasts. She isolated potentially cancerous cells,
known as epithelial cells. Next, she isolated DNA to look for
signals that regulate tumor suppressor genes.
She analyzed three genes among the many known to undergo a
process called methylation in breast cancer. Methylation in a
specific region of a gene can inhibit or suppress the expression of
a gene, Arcaro said, "so it's turned off."
For one gene, SFRP1, the average methylation was higher in the
biopsied breast, she found.
Among the women whose biopsies detected cancer, average
methylation of the RASSF1 gene in the biopsied breast was
considerably higher compared to the non-biopsied breast.
The researchers presented results for 182 women whose biopsy
reports were complete and who had the DNA analysis.
Previous studies of these methylation patterns in breast cells
used fine nipple aspiration or a technique called ductal lavage to
retrieve the cells. Obtaining the cells from breast milk is
noninvasive and inexpensive, Arcaro noted.
It's too soon, however, to assess the cancer detection rate
associated with breast milk cell examination, she said, but
research is continuing.
"We can't say at this point for two reasons," she said. "One is, we need long-term follow-up. And the second really important reason is, we need to sample a larger panel of genes."
Eventually, the hope is to use the breast milk screening on
older mothers soon after they give birth. The test could supplement
other breast cancer predictor tools, such as the Gail model, which
takes factors such as age into account, Arcaro said.
The research has merit, said Dr. Priscilla A. Furth, a professor
of oncology and medicine at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive
Obtaining the cells seems to be the easy part, Furth said. "The
question is, how good will this be? And I think this study does not
yet answer that."
Using it on a large scale for screening will only be valuable if
its predictive value is high, she said. And that number is still
The findings should be viewed as preliminary as they are
presented at a medical conference in advance of any publication in
a peer-reviewed medical journal.
Arcaro is continuing the research and will accept milk samples
from any nursing mother who learns she needs a breast biopsy. If
interested, contact her at the university, and she will arrange to
have the sample picked up.
To learn more about breast cancer, visit the
U.S. National Cancer Institute.