They hope the inexpensive and simple test will spot the disease long before a woman develops a lump - and say it could be used in a national screening programme.
Picking up the cancer at the earliest stages when it is easiest to treat could save thousands of lives, as well as spare patients and their loves ones the pain and distress of prolonged illness.
Researcher Fiona Larner said: ‘Prevention is better than cure.
‘There is a survival rate of about 80 per cent for breast cancer but the earlier you can detect it, the more chance you have of treating it.
‘There are drugs out there that can cure breast cancer or give patients a better timeline.
‘If you can detect it earlier, you can give more women a better chance of survival.’
The hope centres around the metal zinc and ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ forms of it which exist in the body.
Breast tissue is known to take up zinc and release it back into the bloodstream.
Dr Larner has shown that cancerous cells absorb more zinc. They also hold onto more of the ‘light’ form of the metal.
If breast tumours have more of the ‘light’ version in their tissue, this means they unwanted ‘heavy’ version should be floating around in their blood.
In other words, woman who has higher than average levels of the ‘heavy’ form of zinc in her blood may have breast cancer.
Dr Larner is developing such a blood test and hopes it will be available in as little as five years.
Women who have inherited genes that put them at high risk of breast cancer are likely to be first to benefit.
Ten years from now, the blood test could be used to screen all women for early stages of breast cancer, as opposed to using mammograms or X-rays instead.
It is hoped it would spot the disease earlier than the mammograms or breast x-rays that are currently used.
Other trace metals may leave different footprints in the blood that could be used to spot other cancers, the scientists believe.
The study has been reported in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Metallomics.
Breast cancer is Britain’s most common cancer with almost 50,000 women diagnosed a year.
Survival rates are improving but the disease is still the second biggest cancer killer among women after lung cancer, claiming almost 1,000 lives a month.
Globally, it claims more than half a million lives a year.
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