The new technique uses nuclear medicine technology to pick up chemical changes in malignant cells rather than waiting for a tumor to be detected by mammogram or breast exam.
"Once you start seeing structural changes using mammography, that indicates the molecular process has been going on for awhile," says lead researcher Martin Tornai, PhD, in a news release. "If we can detect subtle changes in cells before a tumor has developed, we have a better chance of treating the abnormal cells in their earliest stages of malignancy."
The scanner -- called functional mammotomography -- uses a radioactive tracer that is injected into the bloodstream. The tracer is preferentially attracted to cancer cells due to their high metabolic activity. Then, 3-D images are created -- cancer cells light up from the tracer and surrounding normal tissue appears dim, says Tornai, associate professor of radiology and biomedical engineering at Duke University, who developed the device.
In tests on artificial breasts, the breast scanner was very sensitive at identifying breast cancer cells.
But what about all of that radioactive tracer floating around in your body?
Tornai says the breast scanner is a safe procedure -- the amount of radiation exposure from a single procedure is about the same as a year's exposure from the natural background radiation found in the environment.
In addition to detecting breast cancer earlier, the new technology offers other advantages over traditional mammography.
The procedure, which would take about 10 to 20 minutes per breast, should be more comfortable than mammography because the breast is not compressed during the procedure, says Tornai.
It's unlikely that the breast scanner would replace the mammogram, but it would be particularly useful in certain groups of women.
"This technology could potentially be applied to screening women who are at high risk for breast cancer, particularly younger women who have denser breast tissue that X-ray mammography can't easily penetrate," Tornai says.
For Breast Cancer Treatment, Too
It could also be useful for women undergoing breast cancer treatment because it could detect changes to the cancer cells, he says.
"During and after chemotherapy, if you take an X-ray mammogram of the same cancerous tissue, it looks identical to its pre-treatment size," says Tornai. "But if you take a nuclear medicine image, the dead tissue doesn't take up the tracer, so you can see if the therapy is having an effect very early on, much sooner than waiting for tumor shrinkage."
The device is not yet available, and Tornai plans to begin studies on women next spring.