Their lab study, funded by Cancer Research UK, suggests that the same approach could potentially be used to detect precancerous breast cells, deliver radiotherapy to destroy tumours and monitor the effectiveness of treatment.
The approach makes use of a protein called gamma-H2AX as a marker for DNA damage in an early stage of cancer development.
The Oxford team attached fluorescent markers to an antibody which ‘homes in’ on and attaches to gamma-H2AX. Fluorescent 'snap-shots' of gamma-H2AX then revealed the location of pre-cancerous breast cancer cells at a very early stage.
Professor Katherine Vallis, who led the study at the Gray Institute for Radiation Oncology and Biology at Oxford University, said: 'This early research reveals that tracking this important molecule could allow us to detect DNA damage throughout the body. If larger studies confirm this, the protein could provide a new route to detect cancer at its very earliest stage – when it is easier to treat successfully.'
Previously the Oxford team modified an antibody to target gamma-H2AX and deliver radiotherapy to breast cancer cells which contained high levels of the protein. This form of radiotherapy works by boosting DNA damage until cells can no longer repair mistakes – and die.
The results confirmed that the radioactive antibody killed breast cancer cells and slowed tumour growth.
Professor Vallis added: 'We need to confirm these findings in larger studies before we know if this approach could benefit patients. But these initial results show that it may be possible to track down cells with high levels of DNA damage, and destroy them before they became cancerous.
'One day we may be able to scan the body to map out the radioactive antibodies that have attached to the gamma-H2AX molecule. This could also allow doctors to paint a useful picture of how effective a treatment is.'
Dr Julie Sharp, Cancer Research UK’s senior science information manager, said: 'This important study reveals that targeting this key molecule could provide an exciting route for new ways to detect cancer at an earlier stage – and help to deliver radiotherapy and monitor its effect on tumours.'