Hair Used to Diagnose Breast Cancer

Researchers at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia suggest that human hair may be used to screen women for breast cancer in the future.

Veronica James and colleagues conducted x-ray analysis on the pubic hairs of groups of healthy women, women with breast cancer, and women who did not have breast cancer, but had either a strong family history of the disease or the BRCA1 gene mutation associated with high breast cancer risk. Researchers had originally planned to analyze hair from the women’s scalps, but found that the chemicals used in hair dyes and permanent waves confused test results.

Researchers analyzed hairs using a technique called synchrotron X-ray scattering and found that the hair from healthy women had an entirely different molecular structure than that of cancer patients and many of the women with high risk for breast cancer. All hair samples from the 23 breast cancer patients revealed the same changes in molecular structure, while hair from 24 of the 28 healthy women showed a normal molecular structure.

James and colleagues were astonished at the results and urge future research to verify the “sensitivity and specificity of the test.” Study authors wrote, “It is possible that this [recent findings] may lead to a simple and reliable screening method for breast cancer using a single public hair.”

Among women at high risk for cancer, the hair from women with the BRCA1 gene mutation had the same structure as the hair of breast cancer patients. The hair of women who lacked the BRCA1 mutation but had a strong family history of breast cancer was found to have a slightly-altered molecular structure. Dr. Larry Norton of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan commented that these results were “especially provocative” and suggested that hair analysis might someday be used to screen women for the BRCA1 gene.


Washington Post - March 4, 1999

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