Researchers found that the pubic hair of women either at risk of breast cancer, or suffering from the disease, had a distinctive "signature" when viewed with a device for measuring the diffraction patterns of X-rays.
The onset of breast cancer seems to result in the distortion of the protein molecules within hair shafts, a distortion that can be measured by the device, according to a team led by Veronica James of the University of New South Wales in Sydney. "These changes are seen in all samples of scalp and pubic hair taken from women diagnosed with breast cancer," the researchers report in the journal Nature. "Because our results are so consistent, we propose that such hair analysis may be used as a simple, non-invasive screening method for breast cancer."
Scalp hair that had been permed proved less reliable than pubic hair, probably because the treatment had damaged the shaft, mimicking the effect of having breast cancer. Hair from women who had inherited a genetic mutation which puts them at risk of breast cancer produced the same X- ray pattern as women with the disease. "We believe that this pattern arises from a variation in the structure of the cell membrane as the hair is formed in the follicle," the researchers say.
"It is possible that this may lead to a simple and reliable screening method for breast cancer using a single pubic hair," Dr James said.
Gordon McVie, director-general of the Cancer Research Campaign, said the device used by the Australian team, known as a synchrotron radiation source, is too sophisticated and rare to be used in cancer screening. There is only one in Britain. But, he added, the research shows there a possible biochemical basis for a simple test.
"What is intriguing about this research is why there should be a difference in hair. The next step is to find the biochemical basis for the difference," Professor McVie said.