March 14, 2019

Single blood test could offer rapid breast cancer diagnosis

Two-year clinical program seeking participants for study
Bob Shepherd and Tina Rinker hope to have the blood test for breast cancer ready for commercialization within the next two years.

Bob Shepherd and Tina Rinker hope to have the blood test ready for commercialization in two years.

Schulich School of Engineering

A fast, reliable answer.

There may be nothing more vital for the thousands of patients left worried and wondering following an abnormal screening mammography or clinical breast exam — and a blood test from the University of Calgary may soon provide exactly that.

Initially developed through a research program led by Dr. Kristina Rinker, PhD, the test has been refined by a university spinoff company, Syantra Inc., to place it in a position for commercialization. The test screens blood samples for evidence of the disease, quickly providing an answer that previously meant waiting for diagnostic mammograms, ultrasounds and biopsies.

“I saw an opportunity to create a new way of helping people get diagnosed earlier, with faster results leading to earlier treatment,” explains Rinker, lead of the Charbonneau Cancer Institute’s Early Cancer Detection Initiative and associate professor in the Centre for Bioengineering Research and Education.

Available to patients within next two years

The goal is to have the test ready for commercialization within the next two years, and by the middle of 2020, more than 800 women in Calgary and around Alberta will take the blood test alongside their regular mammogram as part of a clinical investigation to show how well the test works.

The study in Calgary is part of an international program funded by the Alberta Small Business Innovation Research Initiative Early Detection of Cancer Challenge, a partnership of Alberta Innovates, the Alberta Cancer Foundation and DynaLIFE Medical Labs. Funding from the partnership is supporting Syantra, and enabling the necessary demonstration work to move forward.

Rinker and her husband, Bob Shepherd, along with several other partners, co-founded Syantra, and the company needs less than a tablespoon of blood to run the test, with results determined via a proprietary algorithm based upon artificial intelligence.

More effective than traditional tests

The test detects breast cancer, potentially earlier and more effectively than mammography, which Shepherd says is key in improving treatment success.

“It helps fill a gap in current methods of breast cancer detection, which can provide better outcomes for patients as well promote efficiency in the health-care system,” says Shepherd, who was previously a senior research associate at the university.

Syantra’s local clinical program, A New Study to Identify Breast Cancer (IDBC), is being run through the University of Calgary. It is currently open to recruitment for women between 25 and 80 years old with no previous history of cancer. International sites are located in Manchester, U.K., and Oklahoma City. 

International effort

According to Dr. Nigel Bundred, MD, lead investigator of the Manchester study site, “Mammograms only detect 70 per cent of cancers in premenopausal women, and a blood test to increase detection would be greatly welcomed.” 


Echoing these thoughts, Dr. Alan Hollingsworth, MD, from the Oklahoma City site says, “The work being done by Syantra has the potential to revolutionize breast cancer screening approaches, and I am pleased to be assisting in this endeavour. Blood test results can potentially increase precision, allowing more cancers to be detected with fewer imaging requirements.”

Women interested in participating in the IDBC clinical program can find more information here.

Kristina Rinker is an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering (Schulich School of Engineering) and  also an associate professor in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute, Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases, and Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta. 

The University of Calgary’s multidisciplinary Engineering Solutions for Health: Biomedical Engineering research strategy drives solutions to our most pressing health challenges in disease and injury prevention, diagnosis and treatments. Our biomedical engineering researchers make a significant impact in our communities by extending lives, improving quality of life, promoting independence, and continuously improving the health system.