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Breast Cancer Health Center

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New Technique May Provide Better, Clearer Mammograms

WebMD Health News

March 2, 2000 (New York) -- An experimental technique provides better images of the breast than standard mammography and may detect tumors that would otherwise be missed, researchers report in the March issue of Radiology.

In their study, the researchers compared digital mammography -- which, like conventional mammography, uses X-rays -- to the experimental technique, called diffraction enhanced imaging (DEI). DEI still depends on the use of X-rays, but with some modifications aimed at making the image clearer. The scientists looked at seven human breast cancer specimens. There were two different types of breast tumors: infiltrating lobular cancer, which is the second most common type of invasive breast cancer, and infiltrating ductal cancer.

Etta Pisano, MD, one of the co-authors of the study, calls the images done with DEI "exquisite." In most of the cases, DEI gave a better picture than did digital mammography. In some cases, the DEI revealed more cancer than suspected; in others it showed that areas suspected of being cancer were actually thickened breast tissue or tumors surrounded by thickened breast tissue. The DEI is particularly good at detecting these latter tumors because it can show differences in tissue density that standard X-ray mammography cannot.

Pisano, who is a professor of radiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, says that breast imaging can be compared to a pair of stockings. "All the little fibers are all running in the right direction when you have normal-looking stockings. Then you get a snag and all of a sudden all the little threads are all going every which way," she says. The goal of mammography is to find the "snags," which are findings characteristic of breast cancer.

"The advantage of [DEI] may be that if we can see the lesion characteristics better, then maybe we can see it earlier," Pisano says. "But that is speculation right now and it's too premature to say."

Currently, the practicality of DEI is uncertain because the machine used is so large. Although there are hopes of making the technology portable, Pisano says that there is a long way to go to make that a reality.

"At this point we don't even know if we can do it on patients," she tells WebMD. "We are working actively to try to adapt it to a clinical device, but it's not trivial and we have a bunch of technical problems to solve to get it from what it is now to a clinical device. I think we can do it, but it hasn't happened yet."

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