University of Saskatchewan

April 21, 2014   

Synchrotron Hair Analysis May Reveal Breast Cancer

March 24, 1999

For Immediate Release
Wednesday, March 24/99

A potential new breast cancer screening method that uses synchrotron- produced X-rays to analyze hair fibres underscores the need for Canada to build the proposed Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan, says a U.S. researcher involved in the discovery.

"This research looks very promising and very exciting," said Thomas Irving, assistant professor of biology at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

"The proposed CLS would be ideal for this sort of research and analysis."

In an article published this month in the peer-reviewed journal Nature, Irving and an international team of researchers found that hairs from breast cancer patients generate atypical X-ray images when the hair samples are exposed to high-intensity beams from a "third-generation" synchrotron like the one proposed for the U of S.

It's not clear why this is so, but the researchers think the atypical pattern indicates a particular kind of breakdown in the highly ordered structure of hair which "may indicate a propensity to malignancy and be related to breast cancer per se."

The changes in hair structure were seen in all hair samples -- 23 of the 23 tested -- from women diagnosed with breast cancer. None of the women had been treated with chemotherapy which is known to affect hair.

The test was also positive for five women who did not have breast cancer but who had both a family history of breast cancer and a mutation in the BRCA1 gene -- factors which together confer very high odds of getting breast cancer.

If confirmed by larger studies now in progress, the test could provide an accurate, non-invasive, but less costly alternative to mammograms, Irving said. All that's required from the patient is a single hair.

Since a high volume of hair samples could be analyzed daily on a third-generation synchrotron, the new test would likely cost only a few dollars per sample, making it cheaper than any other breast cancer screening technique, he said. Women in remote areas without access to mammograms could even mail in hair samples to synchrotron facilities, he added.

He cautioned the hair analysis technique, performed at the Advanced Photon Source synchrotron facility in Illinois, needs to be tested on more women to know how useful it will be. "We will know in a year or so whether it will work well enough to be an effective screening tool for breast cancer," he said.

If further research confirms the value of the new X-ray hair test, demand for the test alone "may justify building whole new synchrotron machines," he said.

But even if the technique does not lead to an accurate cancer test, the underlying research into the link between breast cancer and microscopic changes in hair structure could lead to new knowledge about how cells communicate with each other as the disease progresses, he said. Such research is only possible with the brilliant X-rays produced by a synchrotron, he added.

"Our study could create even more demand for synchrotron light sources as a research tool," he said. "People in the research community will be looking for changes in different patterns from tissue samples to see whether other disease states can be diagnosed in a similar way."

Canadian-born Irving, who earned his bachelor and doctorate degrees at the University of Guelph, said it's a "national embarrassment" that Canada doesn't have a synchrotron, unlike all other G7 countries.

"When I finished my Ph.D., there was nowhere for me to go in Canada to do synchrotron research," he recalls.

"Having a synchrotron in Canada would create scientific opportunities for Canadian researchers and would mean they won't have to go elsewhere."

At present, it's difficult and expensive for Canadian researchers to get time on foreign synchrotrons.

"Most synchrotron beam lines are vastly over-subscribed," he said. "All the big shots use the machines and there aren't enough of the new generation of researchers being trained on these machines."

Millions of times more intense than medical X-rays, synchrotron light is an indispensable tool for pure and applied research in a great variety of areas including materials, science, medicine, biology, chemistry, physics, and the environmental sciences.

In an unprecedented show of support for a new research facility, 17 of Canada's major universities have endorsed the proposed CLS as essential to the country's technological future.

Designed to be one of the brightest X-ray sources in North America, the CLS could be under construction on the U of S campus as early as next month and in operation by the year 2003. A decision from the Canada Foundation for Innovation on a key funding component is expected March 30, 1999.

For more information, contact:
Kathryn Warden
Research Communications Officer
Office of the Vice-President Research
(306) 966-2506

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