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New High-Tech Mammogram Shows Promise

Method Could Improve Accuracy, Reduce Pain and Biopsies

WebMD Health News

Dec. 3, 2002 -- Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among women, and early diagnosis is the key to survival. Now a new, high-tech mammogram could make diagnosis more accurate -- and less painful.

Getting a mammogram is a painful and unpleasant experience for many women. And when the mammogram shows a suspicious image, that isn't the end of the story. Instead, the doctor orders a biopsy, which is more uncomfortable still. All of that trouble frequently ends up for naught, as 80% of biopsies show no sign of disease.

But CT Laser Mammography, currently under consideration for approval by FDA, could eliminate most unnecessary biopsies, according to Eric Milne, professor of radiology at the University of California-Irvine and chief radiologist at Imaging Diagnostic Systems. "If this technology is employed, there will be much less risk that a woman will have an unnecessary or negative biopsy," he tells WebMD.

At a news conference at the Annual Radiological Society of North America conference in Chicago, Milne unveiled new research demonstrating that laser mammography can successfully distinguish tumors from benign cysts. In addition, it gets rid of the need for breast compression that is so painful for many women during traditional mammography. The study was funded by the device's manufacturer, Imaging Diagnostic Systems.

Rather than looking for irregularities in tissues, laser mammography scans for the network of new blood vessels that a growing tumor must surround itself with to continue growing and survive. If such blood vessels are present, a cancerous tumor is very likely. If they are not, a spot on a mammogram is likely to be a benign cyst or simply a false alarm.

To spot the blood vessels, the test relies on a laser beam that has been fine-tuned so it can detect hemoglobin -- the protein that carries oxygen in the blood. In a small tumor, it can illuminate a surrounding network of new-growth blood vessels that can be 20 times larger than the tumor itself. That makes it more reliable than a traditional mammogram with X-rays, which can spot only the small tumor, Milne says.

In the study, Milne found that CT laser mammography resulted in fewer biopsies, and 80% of those biopsies came back as cancerous. Fewer unnecessary biopsies means a reduction in the unnecessary pain and anxiety of the additional procedure.

Additional assurance could also lead to an increase in the number of women willing to undergo mammography, according to Milne. Women talk to each other, "and when a friend says, 'I've had seven biopsies and every one has been negative,' [a woman] may back away from it."

Some physicians may even choose to use the system in place of a mammogram for women who are particularly sensitive to the procedure. "In this day and age, women should have a choice available other than 'I'll have a mammogram or I won't have one, and therefore I will not be screened,'" says Milne.

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