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Women's Health

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The Future of Breast Cancer Screening

An array of high-tech detection techniques and devices is on the scientific horizon.


Another breast detection technique that scientists have gradually enhanced over the years is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In this method, a large magnet, radio waves, and a computer work together to produce what experts consider a very clear, cross-sectional picture of the breast. Furthermore, experts can examine specific areas by injecting a dye in the veins, which collects in problematic tissues, making them more visible in the MRI picture.

Similar techniques are now under investigation, such as magnetic resonance elastography (MRE), which draws an image of the breast based on the elasticity of vibrating tissue.

Toward a Better Image (of Breasts)

Many methods to check for breast cancer are still experimental right now. Often, women at high risk of developing the disease turn to clinical trials of these imaging devices in an effort to ease their concerns.

Some of these experimental methods are:

  • Positron emission tomography (PET). This technology makes use of the notion that a tumor has a higher metabolism than normal tissue. When a radioactive substance is injected into a patient's vein, it travels to rapidly dividing cancerous cells, which have greater nutrient needs. Ideally, a PET scanner would detect the activity and produce an image of it.

  • Ductal lavage and ductoscopy. The idea behind these two methods is that certain cancers begin in the milk ducts of the breasts. In ductal lavage, a catheter is inserted through the nipple and into the milk ducts. A saline solution is emptied into the ducts, and then withdrawn. Then the cells washed out from the ducts are checked under a microscope. In ductoscopy, a catheter with a light at the tip is inserted through the nipple into the ducts and a dye is injected. The dye outlines the shape of the duct and an X-ray ideally shows whether there is an abnormal growth in the area.

  • Electrical impedance spectral imaging (EIS). Low-frequency electrical currents are applied to the breast, and an image is formed based on the theory that normal tissue and cancerous masses conduct electricity in different ways.

  • Microwave imaging spectroscopy (MIS). This device uses microwave energy that is similar to cell phone frequencies (but at a much lower level). The technique is particularly sensitive to water, and can detect areas where there is more of it. Tumors are thought to have more water and blood than regular tissue.

  • Near infrared (NIR) spectral imaging. This method is based on the idea that infrared light is sensitive to blood, creating an image of hemoglobin inside the breast. Knowledge of vascular activity is believed to help spot early tumor growth, and determine its stage.

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