Blow for hair link to breast cancer

The promising link between certain properties in human hair which could have potentially helped in diagnosis of breast cancer is “dubious” according to research published today in the Institute of Physics journal, Physics in Medicine and Biology. Dr Mark Sutton of the McGill University in Canada and colleagues have found no clear association between peaks seen in what is known as small angle x-ray scattering and the risk of breast cancer, as had been reported previously in the journal Nature (James et al.,1999).

Work published in 1999 reported the possibility of using small angle x-ray scattering from hair to detect breast cancer. Small angle x-ray scattering gives information on the microscopic structure of materials on the nanometre (a millionth of a millimetre) to the micrometre (a thousandth of a millimetre) scale. Human hair comes in different colours and textures and has a complicated structure made up of many parts. This structure can differ from one individual to another, but although much is already known about these differences, the structure of hair is neither completely measured nor completely understood.

“The idea that there could be a correlation between breast cancer and the structure of hair did seem surprising as their biochemistries are completely different, but such a link could have been very important,” said Dr Mark Sutton.

In the original research the presence or absence of a particular peak in the scattering was said to show that the patient either had breast cancer or was susceptible to it. Such a link could have led to a relatively simple test for breast cancer. Also, an understanding of a possible link between the structure of hair and breast cancer could have given a unique insight into the mechanisms of cancer.

Dr Sutton and his team looked again for the link between human hair and breast cancer by measuring small angle x-ray scattering patterns on 56 patients who were known to either have breast cancer or not. This `fully-blinded` test looked for a particular peak in the scattering and measured its intensity.
Their results showed no clear association between small angle x-ray scattering and the risk of breast cancer. The measurements were performed at the Advanced Proton Source in Argonne, Illinois, USA.*

“Looking at the original results, we thought that their link between hair structure and breast cancer might be some kind of genetic factor, as there are numerous genetic causes of abnormal hair structure. Instead, it looks at though no correlation exists at all, which is disappointing,” said Dr Sutton.
* This work was supported by an IDEA grant from the Canadian Breast Cancer Research Institute.

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