New Procedure for Analyzing Milk-Duct Cells May Provide Possible Early Warning Signs of Breast Cancer

Jo Gellerman
Aug. 27, 2001


The Arizona Cancer Center is sponsoring a pilot study using ductal lavage, an experimental technique of extracting milk-duct cells, that potentially could be used to identify risks for breast cancer.

  • Editors Please Note: Video of the procedure is available. Call Jo Gellerman at 626-7301.



More than 95 percent of all breast cancers start in the lining of the milk ducts, but it usually takes eight to 10 years before a routine mammogram or physical exam spots the problem. Researchers are hoping this new procedure can be used to detect pre-malignant and malignant breast cells long before they can become visible tumors.

Ductal lavage involves flushing the ducts to dislodge cells by injecting saline solution through the nipples and drawing it back out again, explains James A. Warneke, UA associate professor of surgical oncology. Once collected, the cells are viewed under a microscope to determine whether they are normal, atypical, suspicious or malignant.

An advantage to ductal lavage is that it can be repeated in the exact same duct. That way, doctors can monitor high-risk women by looking for changes in those cells over time, Warneke says. "Ductal lavage has the potential to be a very valuable screening test for women."

Cynthia A. Thomson, one of the study's principal investigators, says that because ductal lavage may provide an opportunity to look for the very beginnings of abnormal changes, it can offer high-risk women unique, early information when used in conjunction with mammography and breast examination.

"This kind of information can help in making decisions about risk reduction and treatment options," she says. "Treatment options might include anticancer drugs or nutritional changes."

Study participants will be women between the ages of 25 and 50, with normal and abnormal mammographic findings, as well as those with normal or high risk for breast cancer, Thomson says. Because of the anesthetics used to numb both the nipple and the duct, most women do not find ductal lavage painful.

Each year more than 175,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with breast cancer and more than 43,000 will die of the disease. Thousands of lives could be saved each year if breast cancer could be detected in its earliest stages.

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