Tear Up to Fight Breast Cancer

Ground breaking research in Arkansas will soon allow doctors to screen more accurately for cancer by testing tears.

Test tear drops to screen for breast cancer

By Angela E. Thomas


It’s said that eyes are windows to the soul. A new research project will soon use tears as windows to the body, specifically to the lymphatic system.

Anna Daily is chief scientist on “The Melody Project,” the working name for a study being conducted at Ascendant Dx in Springdale, in which researchers are identifying the protein biomarkers associated with breast cancer.

“Proteins are present in the body all of the time. When a person has cancer, the amount of proteins varies or changes—some increase, others decrease,” Daily explained. “Allergies are a good example. When a person has an allergic reaction, the body ‘sees’ the foreign object or allergen, for instance, pollen, and increases the antibodies, a type of protein that binds to the allergen, and tells the body’s immune system to fight the allergen. These proteins are always present, but they increase to help the body rid itself of the allergen.”

Dr. V. Suzanne Klimberg discovered the pattern of breast cancer proteins in tears and has conducted a number of studies involving tears, ovarian cancer and colon cancer. She serves as medical director for Ascendant Dx and is co-inventor of the company’s first product, MelodyDx™. Klimberg is also well known for her breast cancer research, including Spit for the Cure, a project involving the analysis of saliva samples.

So, why study tears? Daily explained, “Tears are a filtered product of blood. Tear ducts are fairly close to the lymph system, so there’s a lot of exchange between blood and tears. Blood is made up of a number of cell types and proteins; however, tears are cleaner. Thus, it’s easier to see the proteins within it. Also, tears are relatively easy to collect.”

The ultimate goal, Daily said, is to develop a screening test to determine if a woman has breast abnormalities by testing her tears. “In the United States, only 40 to 60 percent of women get tested via mammography. If this becomes a screening option, it’s likely more women will be tested and earlier. This is key, as the best way to defeat breast cancer is to catch it early,” Daily said. “And for the 40 to 50 percent of women who have dense breast tissue, which makes cancer harder to detect, this could make a difference. It could be an option for standard screening methods.”

Ultimately, the researchers would like to develop an over-the-counter test that can determine if a woman has breast abnormalities by testing her tears. Daily said they are a couple of years away from completing the project. She pointed out that they must adhere to FDA regulations.

Thus far, they have collected data related to three proteins that differentiate women who have breast abnormalities from those who don’t. They also have to consider “sensitivity.” Two factors determine accuracy are sensitivity and specificity. Sensitivity is the probability that a “yes” result is a true yes, and specificity is the probability that a “no” is a true no. “Our test has a sensitivity of 86 percent and a specificity of 84 percent,” Daily said. “Mammograms have a sensitivity of 60 percent and a specificity of 75 percent.” These numbers change when a woman’s breasts are more dense, she said, and with mammography sensitivity can be as low as 20 percent.

Daily said, “If you’re developing a test for breast cancer, your specificity goal is 100 percent, or as close to it as possible. If you give a ‘no,’ but it’s a ‘yes’ the results are detrimental.”

“When studying cancer, you want to be sure what you present to the public is accurate,” Dailey said. Still, she’s excited about the research. “Everyone knows someone who has or has had breast cancer. My grandmother is a breast cancer survivor,” she said. The test, when available, will be a true game changer.

Indeed, 26 of Arkansas’s 75 counties don’t have fixed mammography service. “And the women who live in these counties are among those who need it most,” said Sherrye McBryde, executive director of the Arkansas Affiliate, Susan G. Komen. “These counties tend to be impoverished, and the residents are at greater risk of poor health and diseases like cancer.”

Daily said, “This test could make the screening process happen earlier, which could in turn encourage more women to be screened.” Helping with this groundbreaking project in Arkansas is a bonus for Daily. “I was born and raised in Arkansas and obtained my PhD here. The opportunity to work on something so revolutionary is an opportunity I never thought I’d have.”