A New Test For Breast Cancer Examines Hair Follicles, Not Breast Tissue

For the Feb. 25, 2008 issue of BusinessWeek magazine, I filed a short news piece on an innovative new medical company called Fermiscan. (Here’s the link to the story, but you’ll have to scroll to the second entry of briefs to find it). Fermiscan, based in Australia, is betting that women (and, actually, men) will be more comfortable submitting hair samples to be blasted with ultra-strong x-ray beams so scientists can look for abnormalities in the way their locks diffract light, than with current breast-cancer screening tests. When certain abmornal patterns appear during a Fermiscan hair scan, they’re compared to patterns found in cancer patients’ hair. Cancer changes the molecular structure of hair.

I just saw on a New York City TV news report last night an entire health segment based on this short piece in BusinessWeek, which the station cited as the source, and based the entire segment on. I was amazed that such a small story received such attention already — but also realized how much the public is ready for a less-cumbersome alternative to mammograms and MRIs for detecting breast cancer. Fermiscan says that the tech can also be used to detect prostate and other cancers. But there are caveats…

One, when monitoring for breast cancer, the test can't tell which breast is affected. Two, although Fermiscan cites accuracy rates of 80%, the scientific community is skeptical as no independent scientists have replicated the results of the initial experiments which Fermiscan's tech is based on (from a ten-year-old study, published in the journal Nature in 1999.)

Still, the concept is truly innovative, and doctors and patients have, even if they have doubts, have vocalized their support in the intent of Fermiscan to push breast-cancer testing in new, more comfortable directions. When researching the piece, I spoke with Dr. Eric P. Winer, The Susan G. Komen Foundation’s Chief Scientific Advisor, who said he applauds Fermiscan for thinking originally as there needs to be alternatives to mammography and MRI, because both methods can miss cancer and are cumbersome.

He hadn’t heard of Fermiscan before I introduced him to the company (which I learned about a few weeks ago while hosting two panels on Australian Innovation in New York), but said their idea is “fascinating.” However, Dr. Winer thinks that until the test has been through rigorous peer review, it’s a long way off from being ready for widespread use.

Fermiscan's going through a large patient trial in Australia this year, and hopes to conduct one in the U.S. soon after. Their ambitious plan is to start offering the US$200 test in Australia by the end of 2008.

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