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

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People diagnosed with early stage breast cancer

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Checked Her2+ breast cancer

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Recent headlines announced a blood test that can potentially predict which breast cancer survivors are at risk of recurrence. This particular blood test, one of many being developed, is sometimes called a “liquid biopsy.” This early research focuses on a technique that is promising, but not yet available to breast cancer survivors. (10/12/15)

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 early-stage breast cancer patients at highest risk for recurrence.



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 early-stage breast cancer patients at highest risk for recurrence.

This study is about:

Early research on a new blood test, sometimes called a liquid biopsy, 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 DNA could accurately predict metastatic recurrence.
  2. 96% of patients who did not relapse had no detectable tumor DNA 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. 

Questions To Ask Your Health Care Provider

  • 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?


Study background:

About 95% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have early-stage breast cancer with no evidence of metastasis. However, some of these women have micrometastatic disease, a form of metastasis 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 DNA (ctDNA) is released into the blood by dying tumor cells. ctDNA are small pieces of tumor DNA that characterize the genetic features of tumors in patients with advanced cancer. However, little data is available regarding detection of ctDNA in early-stage breast cancers to predict if they are likely to recur. 

Researchers of this study wanted to know:

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

Population(s) looked at in the study:

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

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

Study findings: 

  1. 15 of the 55 study patients (27%) relapsed.
  2. The amount of circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) present before treatment was not associated with early cancer recurrence.
  3. In about half of patients who recurred (6 of 12 patients tested), ctDNA was detected in a blood sample taken 2-4 weeks after surgery.  Sequential blood samples taken after the post-surgery sample found ctDNA in 12 of 15 patients (80%).
  4. 96% of patients who did not relapse had no detectable tumor DNA in their blood.
  5. Patients who were found to have ctDNA had a median of 7.9 months before their relapse could be detected clinically.
  6. ctDNA detection predicted relapse in all the major breast cancer subtypes (ER-positive breast cancer, ER-negative breast cancer, HER2+ breast cancer, and triple-negative breast cancer).
  7. Brain metastasis in 3 patients was not detected by ctDNA.
  8. ctDNA 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 adjuvant chemotherapy), or to patients who have surgery followed by adjuvant chemotherapy 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, ctDNA was found a median of 7.9 months before the patient’s recurrence was detected in a clinic, indicating that identification of circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) 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 ctDNA 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 ctDNA and other liquid biopsy tests to detect cancer recurrence.


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

Posted 10/12/15

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