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10,000 ‘at risk’ women in trials for early breast screening

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by Cancer Research UK | News

28 November 2002

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A leading Cancer Research UK scientist is among eight top clinical researchers chosen to launch a pioneering breast cancer screening study for women between 40-44 who have a significant family history of the disease.

Dr Stephen Duffy, an epidemiologist for Cancer Research UK, says that the project is the first of its kind and will recruit around 10,000 women in 34 cancer networks throughout the UK.

The researchers have been awarded a £600,000 government grant to reach a definitive answer about whether screening this particular group of women will save lives.

“We are looking at women with a significant family history of breast cancer but not one strong enough to suspect a high risk gene mutation,” says Dr Duffy.

“For example we would look at women whose mother had contracted breast cancer before the age of 40 or whose mother had cancer in both breasts under the age of 50.

“The women will be given annual mammograms for five years. The number of tumours and the stage at which they are detected will be compared with what would be expected if screening had not taken place.”

Researchers will evaluate the benefits of screening younger women with a family history of breast cancer and whether it would be cost effective at a national level.

Cancer Research UK has also funded a second arm of the study, led by Dr Joan Austoker, of Oxford University, which looks at the psychological effects of regular screening in younger women.

Kate Law, the charity’s Head of Clinical Trials, says it is important to recognise that screening can have a downside. “It is already stressful for these women to undergo regular screening as they have an acknowledged higher risk of breast cancer,” she says.

“Mammography will pick things up that need to be tested and although the majority of lumps turn out not to be cancer, it can be distressing for women to go through this process. On the other hand many women will find early screening very reassuring. All this needs to be balanced.”

Dr James Mackay, a genetic oncologist at the Institute for Child Health in London, who is leading the project, says: “To be awarded this grant is a considerable achievement. It was won in open competition from every field of medicine. Our priority in this study is to reach a clear conclusion of whether mammography works in this group of women and how much it costs.

“There is a lot of uncertainty in this field and we hope to deliver good evidence one way or the other on whether screening provides a real benefit or not.”

Other researchers taking part in the project are Dr Douglas MacmIllan from Nottingham University, Dr Ruth Warren from Cambridge University, Dr Jonathon Gray from the University Hospital of Wales and Dr Cerilan Rogers and Dr Hilary Fielder of Breast Test, Wales.

Sir Paul Nurse, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, says: “We are very pleased that this charity’s expertise is being used for such an important project.

“Young women, who have had a close relative develop breast cancer, are naturally concerned about their own risk of developing the disease. At present, we simply don’t know whether early breast screening could provide an important means of monitoring their health, so this study will provide valuable insight and help us frame our advice.”


Note to editors:

The national breast screening programme offers mammography every three years to all women aged between 50 and 64. This will be extended nationally to include women up to the age of 70 within the next two years.