How Cool Is That? Using Light to Image Breast Cancer: Into the Future

breast mass diagram

Background: Breast cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer and cancer deaths among women worldwide. Routine screening can increase breast cancer survival by detecting the disease early and allowing doctors to address it at this critical stage. A team of researchers at the University of Twente in the Netherlands have developed a prototype of a new imaging tool that may one day help to detect breast cancer early, when it is most treatable. While not ready for practical use, it is cool (and thus the subject of today’s blog).

Photoacoustic mammoscope: Instead of X-rays, which are used in traditional mammography, the photoacoustic breast mammoscope uses a combination of infrared light and ultrasound to create a 3-D map of the breast. In the new technique, infrared light is delivered in billionth-of-a-second pulses to tissue, where it is scattered and absorbed. The high absorption of blood increases the temperature of blood vessels slightly, and this causes them to undergo a slight but rapid expansion. While imperceptible to the patient, this expansion generates detectable ultrasound waves that are used to form a 3-D map of the breast vasculature. Since cancer tumors have more blood vessels than the surrounding tissue, they are distinguishable in this image.

My Take: For now, infrared light-based imaging is not ready for patient use. Currently the resolution of the images is not as fine as what can be obtained with existing breast imaging techniques like X-ray mammography and MRI. We expect to resolution improvements in the future, as well as progress in the use of different wavelengths of light at once, which should improve detectability. I’m Dr. Michael Hunter, and that’s your brief look into the future.

The small print: The material presented herein is informational only, and is not designed to provide specific guidance for an individual. Please check with a valued health care provider with any questions or concerns. As for me, I am a Harvard- , Yale- and UPenn-educated radiation oncologist, and I practice in the Seattle, WA (USA) area. I feel genuinely privileged to be able to share with you. If you enjoyed today’s offering, please consider clicking the follow button at the bottom of this page.

Available now: Understand Colon Cancer in 60 Minutes; Understand Brain Glioma in 60 Minutes. Both can be found at the Apple Ibooks store. Coming Soon for iPad:  Understand Breast Cancer in 60 Minutes; Understand Colon Cancer in 60 Minute; Understand Colon Cancer in 60 Minutes; Understand Brain Glioma in 60 Minutes. Thank you.

References: Science Daily, 25 October 2013; Wenfeng Xia, Daniele Piras, Mithun K. A. Singh, Johan C. G. van Hespen, Ton G. van Leeuwen, Wiendelt Steenbergen, Srirang Manohar. Design and evaluation of a laboratory prototype system for 3D photoacoustic full breast tomography. Biomedical Optics Express, 2013; 4 (11): 2555 DOI: 10.1364/BOE.4.002555

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understandcancerin60minutes

Harvard AB Yale MD UPenn Radiation Oncology Radiation Oncologist, Seattle area

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