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Researchers have found that breast cancer cells have a high level of sodium in them. Jilson Tiu/EyeEm/Getty Images
  • Thousands of people are diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States annually.
  • Researchers are still discovering new ways to diagnose and treat breast cancer, which can often be fatal.
  • A new study has found that MRIs which detect salt levels in breast cancer tumors in mice could help determine the severity of the cancer and predict the effectiveness of chemotherapy treatment.

Breast cancer impacts thousands of people in the U.S. each year. In 2022 alone, over 280,000 women were diagnosed with it.

Screening is one of the best ways to catch breast cancer early and with each passing day, more treatment options are becoming available. However, researchers are still working to find new ways to identify breast cancer tumors and find appropriate treatments.

A recent study published in the British Journal of Cancer found that measuring salt levels in breast tumors might be an effective way to determine breast cancer severity and the effectiveness of chemotherapy treatment.

Anyone can get breast cancer, but statistics show that more females receive a diagnosis than males. Some people are more at risk for breast cancer due to family and personal history.

Experts recommend that those at risk for breast cancer get appropriate testing. For example, the American Cancer Society recommends that females ages 45-54 get a mammogram yearly and that females over the age of 55 get mammograms at least every other year.

Doctors will often take more than one approach to treat breast cancer. It depends on the type and severity of the breast cancer, but treatment options can include chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.

Scientists in the current study sought to ascertain whether looking at the concentration of sodium levels in tumors could help determine the severity of the cancer and predict the effectiveness of treatment. Conducting the study in mice, the researchers examined breast cancer tumors using sodium magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and diffusion-weighted imaging (DWI).

The researchers found that the breast cancer tumors had elevated levels of sodium compared to non-tumorous regions.

The scientists then treated the tumors with docetaxel, a type of chemotherapy that slows tumor growth rate. They found that sodium levels in breast cancer tumors decreased after the treatment.

The results indicate that medical professionals could use sodium MRI scans as an additional method to help identify breast cancer.

The researchers suggest that combining the techniques of sodium MRI scans with DWI would make it easier to classify tumors. This combination approach may also be an effective method to monitor the response to breast cancer treatment.

Speaking to Medical News Today, study author Dr. William J. Brackenbury explained how salt levels could be an early signal of malignancy.

“The results are exciting for breast cancer treatment because they suggest that sodium may be a useful biomarker of response to therapy.”
⁠— Dr. William J. Brackenbury

“Sodium MRI also has the advantage that it is noninvasive and does not require the administration of contrast agents,” Dr. Brackenbury added.

While the study provides a promising avenue in breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, there were several limitations.

The study was conducted in animals, so scientists will need to do further research to determine if this testing method would be effective in humans.

It is also unclear how sodium levels in tumors may impact or are impacted by treatment. The study authors were unsure if reduced-sodium levels result from treatment or if they contribute to the treatment response.

Moreover, the findings contradict some previous research. The authors suggest that sodium levels may be impacted by both the type of cancer and the type of chemotherapy used. They acknowledge that sodium MRI could be refined to make the test method more distinct and valuable.

The researchers believe their observations indicate changes in the intracellular levels of sodium in breast cancer tumors. As experts conduct more research about changes in sodium levels in tumors, this could open up more treatment options.

Further research could also focus on potential links between sodium intake and breast cancer risk. Dr. Arif Kamal, chief patient officer with the American Cancer Society, who was not involved in the study, noted the following to MNT:

“This study presents very early findings of potential alternative radiologic markers of breast cancer. Further work will be needed to see if these findings translate from mice to humans and whether any relationship exists between dietary sodium intake and breast cancer risk.”

“It’s far too early to advise any recommendations related to modifying dietary salt intake as a mechanism to preventing breast cancer,” Dr. Kamal added.

Nevertheless, the results add to a growing arsenal of potential diagnostic tests to aid in breast cancer treatment.

“We are some way from being able to roll this out for widespread clinical use because there is more research to do to better understand what the high sodium is doing in the tumors and how we can best target and interpret it,” said Dr. Brackenbury.

“Our future research will also focus on developing methods to improve the sensitivity of sodium MRI so that we can improve the image quality and spatial resolution,” he added.