If promising research at the Yale Cancer Center is proven effective, a simple blood or tissue test may be able to provide earlier diagnosis of breast cancer than is now possible with mammograms. To pursue this new technology, the Cancer Center last fall established a new specialized laboratory with $500,000 in seed money provided by Los Angeles philanthropist Marcia Israel.

Investigators are developing new tests capable of detecting very small clusters of cells before they become visible on a mammogram. New technologies already make it possible to determine mutations in single cells as well as in genetic material extracted from a very small number of cells. The biological materials obtained through such methods as fine needle aspiration can then be analyzed with great sensitivity and specificity for the genetic alterations that are the hallmark of cancerous cells. New technologies also make it possible to look for mutated cancer molecules in the blood of patients.

“Researchers at the Yale Cancer Center have hopes not only of improving the detection of small cancers, but also of being able to identify women whose breast tissue is about to become cancerous,” said Jose Costa, M.D., the Cancer Center deputy director under whose supervision the new laboratory falls. “These are the patients on whom we will ultimately want to test new cancer-preventing therapies.”