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MEDICINE / BREAST CANCER : Study Disputes Silicone Implant Risk

TIMES MEDICAL WRITER

Challenging the conventional wisdom about silicone breast implants, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital said Tuesday that preliminary laboratory tests in a handful of women suggest that implants may actually help combat breast cancer when the silicone seeps into the body.

Reporting their results at a meeting in San Francisco, a team of radiology scientists found that plasma samples from three women with silicone implants--long suspected of causing rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases--apparently killed breast cancer cells in the test tube.

The radiologists cautioned that the results are very tentative and that more research will be necessary to confirm their findings. They added that they would not recommend the controversial implants as a way to fight disease. But, they said, their work does point scientists toward a new area of investigation: how silicone, or silicone compounds, might be used to treat cancer.

“You’re always surprised when you find something like this,” Leoncio Garrido, the research radiologist who led the research effort, said at a news conference. If these findings are true, there is the potential for new types of drugs that can kill breast cancer and other types of cancer.”

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At least one prominent cancer expert was highly skeptical of the findings. Dr. John Glaspy, director of the Boyer Oncology Center at UCLA, said that other properties in the plasma--and not silicone--may have been responsible for killing the cancer cells.

“It’s an interesting preliminary observation, but I don’t think there’s anything you can conclude from it,” Glaspy said. “The numbers (of women in the study) are so small that you can’t tell that there’s any correlation with breast implants.”

Thousands of women have filed lawsuits contending that they were injured by silicone gel breast implants, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned two years ago for nearly all cosmetic purposes. Earlier this year, the manufacturers of the implants joined in a record-breaking $4.2-billion settlement to put an end to the suits.

Garrido and his colleagues reported their findings at this week’s annual meeting of the Society of Magnetic Resonance in San Francisco. They conducted two separate studies, one tracking the migration of silicone inside the body and a second analyzing how the blood of women with implants reacted with cancer cells in the test tube.

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The studies were funded by the National Institutes of Health and Massachusetts General, respectively. The first study involved 32 women--26 with breast implants and eight who served as controls.

Using magnetic resonance spectroscopy--a technique for analyzing the chemical composition of tissue--the researchers found that silicone from breast implants travels to the liver. There, it is apparently broken down into smaller molecules containing silicon, the element upon which silicone is based.

The concentrations of silicone and silicon varied from woman to woman. Although higher levels of each were found in women whose implants had ruptured, Garrido said that implants do not need to rupture in order for silicone to seep into the body.

The second study analyzed how the blood of five women with breast implants reacted with cancer cells in the test tube.

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It found that plasma drawn from three women whose implants had been in place more than a decade--from 11 to 17 years--killed cancer cells; two of those women had leaky implants. Plasma drawn from two women whose implants had been in place for less time--about 6 1/2 years--failed to kill the cancer cells, as did plasma drawn from three women who lacked implants.


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