Melody: Identifying Breast Cancer through Tears

Mammography is currently the gold standard for breast cancer detection. A team of researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine recently determined that screening mammography and advances in treatment have prevented nearly 615,000 deaths from breast cancer since 1989.

The Breast Center has been involved in a new way of testing for breast cancer that has the potential to improve these numbers even more.

Ascendant Dx, a Northwest Arkansas biotech start up, is working on a test for breast cancer that uses tears to identify biomarkers of breast cancer. Biomarkers, in this case, are proteins that can signal the presence of very early stages of breast cancer. Ascendant Dx has developed a product called Melody that allows collection of tears with a test strip. The test strip is checked for the proteins.

The technique is being tested at five different locations across the country, including the Breast Center.

“We have been a collection site for several years,” said Sarah Faitak, Director of the Breast Center. “Currently one of their employees works out of our offices recruiting volunteers to provide tears and personal history, which allows them to continue their research.”

Future plans

Melody is less invasive and less expensive than mammograms, and it could identify breast cancer even earlier. In many less developed countries, mammograms are not widely available. In the U.S., half of insured women don’t choose to have regular screening mammograms. The makers of Melody hope that their test will be widely used.

The best way to reduce deaths from breast cancer may be to find it earlier. Melody could help accomplish this.

“At The Breast Center of Northwest Arkansas,” explains Dr. Kelly A. Pierce, “we are constantly striving to identify breast cancer early, while it is small and most treatable. The tear study could lead to finding breast cancer at an even smaller size, potentially before it is visible on imaging tests.”

Melody could be particularly helpful in the case of dense breast tissue. Dense breast tissue can be identified by mammograms, but it can also make it harder to find cancers with mammogram alone. If you have dense breast tissue, your team at the Breast Center will let you know, and may recommend that you also have automated whole breast ultrasound. In the future, Melody may allow easier testing of women with dense breast tissue.

Dr. Steven Harms, a radiologist at the Breast Center, initially described Melody as “almost too good to be true.” He was convinced of the value of the method, and now serves on the Board of Directors at Ascendant Dx. Dr. Harms sees a future in which Melody could screen for breast cancer, allowing only those women with a high chance of having breast cancer to go on to mammograms.

Ascendant Dx is still working to perfect the technique and to meet all regulatory requirements. Melody could be available within just a few years.