Science News

Hair cuts cancer misdiagnosis

Sun, 10th Feb 2008

Scientists in Australia have confirmed that samples of hair can be used to detect patients with breast cancer.

Sydney-based researchers Gary Corino and Peter French from Fermiscan Ltd repeated the work of another researcher, Veronica James, from the Australian National University. She made the initial discovery in 1999 that when samples of hair are placed into a highly focused beam of X-rays, if the hair comes from a patient with breast cancer then the X-rays scatter from the hair with a different pattern than they do when hair from a healthy person is examined.

However, when other laboratories tried to repeat this work they were unable to reproduce the results, calling them into question.  But now Corino and French have successfully done that, and shown that the technique does work so long as the hairs are carefully positioned in front of the X-ray beam, not under to much tension and the youngest (freshest) part of the hair is examined.  Prepared like this, hair from healthy people produces an X-ray diffraction pattern as it is known consisting of a series of arcs certain distances apart.

Hair from breast cancer patients, on the other hand, has a circular ring superimposed over the arcs.  The test tends to generate false-positive results and 20% of healthy cases are incorrectly diagnosed as cancerous, but this doesn't rule out using it.  Instead it means it could be a useful addition to the current system of breast assessment since in combination with other tests it could help to improve the overall accuracy of screening.  But as to why breast cancer alters the hair in this way no one knows.  The disease must be causing something to be added to the chemical structure of the hair in order to produce the ring that the researchers are seeing in their X-ray images.  For now, hair-ever, its identity remains a mystery.

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