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Study: New research may lead to a blood test that detects breast cancer recurrence earlier

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Note: THIS INFORMATION HAS BEEN UPDATED on 11/07/19 with newly-published data. See our updated article: A new blood test may help predict breast cancer patients at highest risk for recurrence.

This study is about:

Early research on a new blood test, sometimes called a , that may help identify patients who are at risk of breast cancer recurrence.

Why is this study important?  

With an effective method of identifying patients who are at risk of recurrence, clinical trials of therapies aimed to prevent relapse could be targeted towards these patients. 

Study findings: 

  1. The blood test that looks for tumor could accurately predict recurrence.
  2. 96% of patients who did not relapse had no detectable tumor in their blood. 

What does this mean for me?  

This small study is still early in the development process.  While results are promising, more work is needed before this test can be used to identify patients who are at risk of recurrence. 

This article is relevant for:

People diagnosed with early stage breast cancer

This article is also relevant for:

people with breast cancer

men with breast cancer

people with triple negative breast cancer

people with ER/PR + cancer

people with Her2-positive cancer

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Study background:

About 95% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have breast cancer with no evidence of . However, some of these women have micrometastatic disease, a form of in which breast cancer cells have spread, but newly formed tumors are too small to be detected by current imaging and testing technologies. Treatment and surgery do not always eliminate these micrometastatic lesions, and currently, we are unable to determine which patients still have micrometastatic disease (also called minimal residual disease-MRD) and which do not. Circulating tumor () is released into the blood by dying tumor cells. are small pieces of tumor that characterize the genetic features of tumors in patients with advanced cancer. However, little data is available regarding detection of in breast cancers to predict if they are likely to recur. 

Researchers of this study wanted to know:

Whether looking for circulating tumor () in the blood can identify patients with micrometastatic disease. 

Population(s) looked at in the study:

The study followed 55 breast cancer patients for about 2 years. 

  • None of the patients had disease at diagnosis that was detectable by standard methods.
  • All of the patients received chemotherapy followed by surgery (i.e. therapy).

Study findings: 

  1. 15 of the 55 study patients (27%) relapsed.
  2. The amount of circulating tumor () present before treatment was not associated with early cancer recurrence.
  3. In about half of patients who recurred (6 of 12 patients tested), was detected in a blood sample taken 2-4 weeks after surgery.  Sequential blood samples taken after the post-surgery sample found in 12 of 15 patients (80%).
  4. 96% of patients who did not relapse had no detectable tumor in their blood.
  5. Patients who were found to have had a median of 7.9 months before their relapse could be detected clinically.
  6. detection predicted relapse in all the major breast cancer subtypes (ER-positive breast cancer, ER-negative breast cancer, HER2+ breast cancer, and ).
  7. Brain in 3 patients was not detected by .
  8. was more similar to the relapsed tumors than the original tumor.


While results from this study population are promising, the sample size of 55 patients is relatively small. Because the study only looked at patients who had surgery and chemotherapy, whether these findings apply to patients who have surgery only (without ), or to patients who have surgery followed by is unknown. Additionally, the follow-up period was short—about 2 years for most patients—so whether other patients recurred after the follow-up period is also unknown. 


In this study, was found a median of 7.9 months before the patient’s recurrence was detected in a clinic, indicating that identification of circulating tumor () may be a potentially useful blood test to predict cancer relapse. The blood test could help physicians identify patients for clinical trials to prevent relapse, because would be identified several months before a relapse could be detected clinically. However, because of the limited sample size and specified treatments of the study population, it is unclear whether or not these results will apply to everyone with breast cancer.  But it is very promising, and more work should be done to pursue and other tests to detect cancer recurrence.


Garcia-Murillas I, Schiavon G, Weigelt B, et al. “Mutation tracking in circulating tumor predicts relapse in early breast cancer.” Science Translational Medicine, Vol. 7, No. 302, Aug. 26, 2015.  

Posted 10/12/15

Questions To Ask Your Doctor
Questions To Ask Your Doctor

  • Are there other ways to predict whether my cancer might recur?
  • What signs and symptoms should I look for if I am concerned about my cancer recurring?
  • What type of follow up care should I have after treatment to look for cancer recurrence?

Who covered this study?

CTV News

Blood test could predict breast cancer’s return: Study This article rates 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Guardian

Blood test may help predict breast cancer relapse This article rates 4.0 out of 5 stars

NBC News

Scientists work on new ‘Liquid Biopsy’ for breast cancer This article rates 4.0 out of 5 stars

Medical News Today

Breast cancer relapse could be predicted with new blood test This article rates 3.5 out of 5 stars

How we rated the media

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