Lasers May Be Gentler Alternative to Breast Cancer Surgery
"The real aim is to say, 'has the laser treatment completely destroyed the cancer or have we left a bit behind,'" Bown says. "If we can be confident the laser has got everything, then we will get to the stage where we don't need conventional surgery as well. We're just about getting to that stage now."
In fact, the researchers report that results so far show MRI is "remarkably good" at detecting the extent of the cancer and detecting whether the laser destroyed all of it. Harms tells WebMD it's important to note that "surgery's not perfect either" when it comes to removing all the cancer, adding "we are very confident in our MRI technology."
Harms is confident enough in the MRI that he's performed the laser process on three women, without conventional surgery afterward. The women instead are undergoing extremely vigilant follow-up for five years. One patient is still doing well one year after surgery, Harms says.
There is a third part to the research that has yielded a beneficial "side effect," Bown says. It came about because the doctors had to be sure the areas treated by the laser did in fact heal safely and did not cause an infection or other problem in the breast.
To do this, women with harmless tumors were recruited. These lumps often occur in young women, and as Bown says, "in one-third of the women, the lumps will go on enlarging, one-third will stay static, and a third [of the women] will get the procedure." By procedure, Bown means lumpectomy to remove the tumor, an option many women avoid.
Because there would be no serious consequences if part of the lump were not adequately treated, the laser procedure was done on women with these noncancerous tumors. It worked. After an average of a few months, Bown tells WebMD the researchers found "[the tumors] curling up their tails and disappearing ... we've found a very effective treatment for these fibroadenomas."
Frances M. Visco, a breast cancer survivor and chair of the National Breast Cancer Coalition in Washington, says the research is very exciting and "moving us forward in the fight against breast cancer.
"The laser surgery approach, as a woman who had a lumpectomy, I find very promising and very exciting ... and I look forward to the ultimate results," Visco says. "But I want to stress, as a consumer, too, that everything we've heard today is preliminary, and our concern as consumers is that what is presented today will tomorrow somehow be turned into clinical practice."
The U.S. Department of Defense has supported the research.