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Diagnosis and screening research for breast cancer

Researchers around the world are looking at better ways to diagnose and screen breast cancer. 

Go to Cancer Research UK’s clinical trials database if you are looking for a trial for breast cancer in the UK. You need to talk to your specialist if there are any trials that you think you might be able to take part in.

Some of the trials on this page have now stopped recruiting people. It takes time before the results are available. This is because the trial team follow the patients for a period of time and collect and analyse the results. We have included this ongoing research to give examples of the type of research being carried out in breast cancer.

Click on the ‘recruiting’, ‘closed’ and ‘results’ tabs to make sure you see all the trials.

Screening age range

The NHS Breast Screening Programme can help to find breast cancers early, when they are too small to see or feel.

In the UK, women are usually screened between the ages of 50 and 70. Doctors are looking at the age range for the NHS Breast Screening Programme. They want to know whether extending it reduces breast cancer deaths. The age range for this research now includes women between the age of 47 to 49 and 74 to 79. 

Two separate studies have looked at screening younger women aged between 35 and 49, who are high risk of breast cancer. The results showed that yearly mammograms found the cancer at an earlier stage and helped save lives.

Based on these findings, guidance for health professionals has been updated to include these age ranges.

Views on screening

In Scotland, a trial has been looking at women’s views on breast, bowel and cervical screening. They want to speak with women who did and did not go for screening. They want to understand why some take part and some do not.

Finding women at higher risk

A large study has shown that having additional tests with routine breast screening has helped accurately pick up women who are at an increased risk of breast cancer.

Other research studies are looking at:

  • developing a method to help GPs identify women at an increased risk of breast cancer due to their family history. The aim is to help pick up those women who are high risk that are not being picked up
  • the benefits and harms of giving women personalised information on their breast cancer risk in the NHS breast screening programme
  • developing a decision aid to help women decide if genetic testing is right for them and when they should have it done
  • MRI scans to detect breast cancer early in women that are high risk

Tests and scans

Blood tests

Doctors are looking at different blood tests that could make breast cancer screening more accurate. These tests could reduce the number of women called back for tests after routine breast screening. Or help doctors diagnose breast cancer earlier.

Researchers are also looking for substances in the body that can help them to diagnose cancer, and to work out how well people are likely to respond to treatment. These substances are called biomarkers. The doctors look for biomarkers in blood and samples of tissue removed during surgery.

Breast x-rays (mammograms)

Doctors use breast x-rays called mammograms to screen for and diagnose breast cancer. Research is ongoing to find ways to improve mammograms including:

  • new types of mammograms such as 3D mammograms and mammograms using contrast
  • looking at past medical records to see if using one or two x-ray readers to look at mammograms can improve diagnosis

Sodium MRI

One trial is looking at a type of MRI scan called the sodium MRI. This uses the salt (sodium) in the cells of breast cancer to see what is going on inside the breast. Researchers want to find out if the sodium MRI scan:

  • will increase their understanding of how breast cancer works
  • help doctors to better predict how well treatment might work
  • help doctors to decide what is the best treatment for each person

Research into treatment for breast cancer

Researchers are looking into new treatments for early and advanced breast cancer.