Breakthroughs in nanotechnology may help physicians spot the spread of breast cancer before it takes root in neighboring organs and tissue, providing an effective preventive strategy against the disease that kills nearly 40,000 American women each year.

Dr. Chad Mirkin, a researcher at Northwestern University and one of the developers of the new technology, said in a press release that the innovation can help physicians spot red flags on an early cellular level. "We've taken perhaps the world's most important molecule, DNA, rearranged it into a spherical shape and modified it to detect specific molecules inside cells,” he explained. “These structures naturally enter cells and light up when they detect disease-causing molecules."

These nano-flares, which were unveiled at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, allows early detection of a disease that can otherwise go completely unnoticed for months, even years. If left untreated, the tumor growth can eventually spread to other organs through a process called metastasis, which typically exacerbates prognosis and complicates therapy.

"We're seeing if we can use nano-flares to create a new type of breast cancer diagnostic, and the early results are remarkable,” Mirkin told reporters. “Nano-flares could completely and radically change how we diagnose breast cancer."

To investigate, the researchers sent these particles through blood samples from cancer patients as well as health people. They found that the particles only lit up when they passed through breast cancer cells. Notably, the nano-flares reacted even in samples with low levels of cancerous activity.

"Nano-flares can detect just a few cancer cells in a sea of healthy cells," Mirkin said. "That's important because when cancer spreads, only a few cells may break off from the original tumor and go into the bloodstream. An added bonus of these particles is that scientists may be able to sample the live cancerous cells and figure out what therapies they might respond to."

Today, breast cancer is the second most deadly cancer among U.S. women, affecting over 200,000 and killing nearly 40,000 each year. It is estimated that one in every eight women will develop the disease at some point in their life. While the cause remains unknown, risk factors include early puberty, late menopause, and certain genes. Lifestyle factors like calorie intake and alcohol consumption have also been implicated in higher risk for diagnosis.