A new study has found that BRCA1-positive breast cells appear to undergo changes before becoming cancerous, which could help identify which patients can benefit from preventative surgery.

The study in mice, funded by Cancer Research UK and published today in Nature Communications, found that breast cells with the BRCA1 gene mutation develop changes similar to those seen in late pregnancy before becoming cancerous.

The researchers suggest that women with BRCA1 mutations could be screened in the future to monitor changes to their breast cells.

This could help to inform decision-making revolving around preventative surgery, by showing who could benefit from this option.

After analysing the mammary tissue of mice at various ages carrying the BRCA1 mutation, the researchers analysed breast cells from 12 women who had a BRCA1 mutation and had undergone preventative surgery.

The team found that four out of the 12 women had detectable levels of markers of early stages of tumour initiations.

This finding suggests that the majority of women could have been at a lower risk of being on the path towards tumour development when they had surgery.

“The discovery of BRCA mutations gave much needed answers to families with a strong history of breast cancer. However, for women that carry the BRCA mutation that are yet to develop breast cancer, they face an incredibly difficult dilemma,” said Michelle Mitchell, chief executive for Cancer Research UK.

“This is fascinating research, and we look forward to seeing the next steps, which could mean in the future, doctors could detect if women carrying these mutations have breast cells that are behaving differently. This could make a world of difference, as they may not need preventative surgery until later in life, or even at all,” she added.