Breakthroughs in Finding & Treating Breast Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on February 08, 2021
4 min read

Researchers are always on the hunt for new and better ways to diagnose and treat breast cancer. From nanotechnology to improved tests, they have made some amazing breakthroughs.

Usually, a mammogram and breast ultrasound are used to screen for breast cancer. Sometimes, doctors will also use breast MRIs. But researchers are studying newer imaging tests to help.

These tests include:

Optical imaging: Light is passed into the breast, and the test measures the amount of light that comes back or passes through the tissue. Researchers are studying the use of this test with MRIs or 3D mammograms to help diagnose breast cancer.

Molecular breast imaging (MBI): Doctors inject a drug that’s slightly radioactive into a vein. Called a tracer, this drug attaches itself to any breast cancer cells. A special camera then sees the tracer and any cells. This test is being studied to be used with mammograms for women with dense breasts or as a way to look at breast lumps or unusual areas seen on a mammogram.

Positron emission mammography (PEM): With the PEM scan, sugar is attached to a radioactive particle to look for cancer cells. This test can also be used when an MRI is recommended but cannot be performed.

Electrical impedance tomography (EIT): Breast cancer cells conduct electricity differently than normal cells. This test looks for that difference. It passes a bit of current through the breast and looks for changes with small electrodes on the skin.

In the past, a human radiologist looked at mammogram results to look for cancer. Humans can make mistakes: Nearly half (49%) of the people who get mammograms every year for 10 years get a false positive result, and between 10% and 30% have a false negative.

Now, radiologists use artificial intelligence (AI) software to help them read mammograms better. Studies show that AI isn’t advanced enough yet to replace human eyes. But it can lead to more accurate results if radiologists use more than one algorithm as well as looking at results themselves. Researchers are also looking for the best ways to combine artificial and human intelligence to diagnose breast cancer.

These drugs target cells that make too much of a protein called HER2. The protein is found in some people who have breast cancer.

The targeted drugs include:


Breast cancer can spread to the bones. There are drugs that can prevent that spread or treat it when it happens.

Drugs like pamidronate (Aredia) and zoledronic acid (Zometa) help strengthen bones. They also can lower the chance of fractures in bones made weak by breast cancer.

Denosumab (Prolia, Xgeva) can help make bones stronger and ease the chance of fractures in bones that have been weakened by cancer.

Doctors can use these tests to look for circulating tumor DNA -- tiny amounts of DNA from a cancer tumor in the bloodstream. The test helps them keep watch on how the tumor evolves during treatment. This can help doctors better tailor treatment to individuals. It can also track mutations in the tumor so doctors can potentially adjust treatment faster.

Liquid biopsies are being used more and more in managing breast cancer as well as other types of the disease, such as lung cancer. But they do have limits. One study has found that most of the mutations found through the test came from white blood cells and not cancer cells. We need more research to know exactly the best way to use liquid biopsy to help treat breast cancer.

This is the science of using very tiny objects. There’s a lot of research in this field in cancer detection and treatment.

Using nanoparticles, chemotherapy can target the cancer cells directly, without hurting the tissue around them. That would make the drugs more effective and cause fewer harmful side effects. There are several drugs approved for use. Others are being tested.

Devices that use nanotechnology can also help find cancer. They let doctors look for signs of it in blood or other fluids.

New drugs and therapies are being tested all the time. The goal is to offer more effective, less toxic treatment with fewer side effects. Taking part in one of these trials may allow you to try a treatment years before it reaches the market. Ask your doctor if a trial might be right for you.

Show Sources


American Cancer Society: "Experimental breast imaging tests," "What's new in breast cancer research and treatment?"

Mayo Clinic: "Breast Cancer: Treatment and Drugs."

National Cancer Institute: "Nanotechnology: Benefits for Treatment and Clinical Outcomes," "Opportunities in Cancer Nanotechnology: A Conversation with NCI’s Dr. Piotr Grodzinski."

UpToDate: " Patient information: Breast cancer guide to diagnosis and treatment (Beyond the Basics)." “Targeted Therapies.” “Breast Cancer -- Metastatic: Types of Treatment.”

National Cancer Institute: “Liquid Biopsy.”

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: “Liquid Biopsy Can Guide Treatment for Women with Metastatic Breast Cancer,” “Many Mutations Detected in Liquid Biopsy Tests Do Not Come from Cancer Cells, an MSK Study Finds.”

Nature Medicine: “High-intensity sequencing reveals the sources of plasma circulating cell-free DNA variants.”

JAMA Network Open: “The Path to Implementation of Artificial Intelligence in Screening Mammography Is Not All That Clear.”

UW Medicine: “Study: AI improves radiologists’ readings of mammograms.”

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