Goodbye, mammogram? A potential fingerprint test could make breast cancer screening more affordable

Researchers in the UK have identified a test that could potentially replace mammograms using a patient’s fingerprints.

Breast cancer kills. I don’t want to start my story off with such a grim tone, but how breast cancer continues to kill remains a sad reality.

The facts are chilling: The Philippines had the highest rate of breast cancer in Asia and the ninth highest in the world in 2019. It is the most common type of cancer among Filipino women, according to a study by Tsu-Yin Wu and Joohyun Lee published in the same year on the website of the National Library of Medicine–National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Moreover, the Philippine Statistics Authority and the Department of Health said that three in every 100 Filipino women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Every year, out of an estimated 86,484 total cancer cases in the Philippines, 27,163 or 31 percent are breast cancer cases.

The procedure analyzes the molecular composition of sweat found via mass spectrometry, a system that measures the atomic weight of particles and molecules to identify them.

Despite breast cancer being screenable through mammography, which can detect cancer even if the patient still doesn’t show signs and symptoms of the disease, the Philippines has one of the lowest screening rates for breast and cervical cancer in the world. According to a 2023 report by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS), only about 1 percent or 540,000 out of 54 million Filipino women undergo cancer screening—a rate that is even lower compared with Cambodia’s and Myanmar’s.

The government think tank attributed the low screening rate to factors such as the perception that diagnostic procedures are expensive, causing many women to avoid being diagnosed early for fear that they would not be able to afford the procedure. This is even terrible news with an estimated 70 percent of breast cancer cases affecting indigent women and with few government hospitals offering mammography.

According to the same study, another factor for the dismal rate is the fear of finding out one has cancer, with patients going for breast screening when the prognosis is already bleak.

Mammography can also cause pain and discomfort, leading many women to think twice about undergoing the procedure.

A ray of hope

But there is hope for a more affordable, more accessible, and less painful way to screen for breast cancer. In a video from Reuters, Simona Francese, PhD and her colleagues at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom have identified a test that could potentially replace mammograms using a patient’s fingerprints.

The procedure analyzes the molecular composition of sweat found via mass spectrometry, a system that measures the atomic weight of particles and molecules to identify them.

“The bulk of my research has been, for nearly 15 years, in forensics but I have discovered a few years ago the possibility to cross over from forensic to medical diagnostics using sweat,” Dr. Francese, who is also a professor of Forensic and Bioanalytical Mass Spectrometry at the same university, told Reuters.

Prof. Francese’s forensic research aimed to help in profiling criminals by providing intelligence about their lifestyle using just their fingerprints. In the process, they realized that they could identify cancer markers as well.

“Sweat contains a lot of different molecules but what we’re interested in is proteins,” she explained.  “Those proteins and the different levels of expression of those proteins and different factors of expression tell us whether a patient has a benign pathology or has early (stage) cancer or is metastatic and we use artificial intelligence to make sense of those mass spectrometry data.”

The pioneering research relies on Matrix Assisted Laser Desorption Ionization Mass Spectrometry (MALDI-MS), using machines made in the UK by the Waters Corporation.

“From the smear of a fingerprint, we can actually determine control samples from potentially cancer samples,” said Dr. Jim Langridge, a scientific fellow at Waters Corporation.

Their hope is for a simple non-invasive fingerprint test to replace the mammogram which is not only painful but also involves traveling to a specialist center.

Prof. Francese says mammograms and biopsies are all we currently have to identify breast cancer and she “absolutely will encourage” women to take these tests because they still save lives.

Go get that mammogram!

Until then, experts recommend women get a mammogram each year when they hit 40 to check for early signs of breast cancer. You can also talk to your doctor about when to start based on your family history because women at higher risk for breast cancer may have to start undergoing mammography earlier.

Breast cancer screening with mammography doesn’t help prevent cancer, but it can help find cancer early when it’s more treatable and prognosis is more optimistic.

You can also do breast self-checks regularly. Even though it is not recommended for screening, if you know your breasts well, you can tell your doctor right away if you notice any changes in how your breasts look or feel.

Remember that early detection is the best way for more affordable care and for better chances against breast cancer.

For more information about breast cancer, some non-government organizations or NGOs have programs that increase awareness on early detection, such as Kasuso or the Philippine Foundation for Breast Care which has its Boobie Programs

Associate Editor

The new lifestyle.