A new technology called diffraction enhanced breast imaging Researchers Developing Possible New Screening Method for Breast Cancer (dateline May 11, 2003) | Breast Health News | Imaginis - The Women's Health & Wellness Resource Network

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Researchers Developing Possible New Screening Method for Breast Cancer (dateline May 11, 2003)

A new technology called diffraction enhanced breast imaging may help detect breast cancer at very early stages, according to British reports. The technique involves analyzing the x-ray scatter produced by breast cells. Researchers have discovered that the scatter from breast cancer tumor cells is different than that of regular breast cells, and distinguishing between these different types of x-ray scatter may help scientists detect cancers as small as four millimeters wide. Though early results of diffraction enhanced breast imaging have been promising, researchers still need to refine the technique to work easily with existing mammogram technology.

Currently, mammography is the only exam approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to screen for breast cancer in women who show no signs or symptoms of the disease. Mammography uses low dose x-ray; high contrast, high-resolution film; and an x-ray system designed specifically for imaging the breasts. Mammography can show changes in the breast well before a woman or her physician can feel them. Once a lump is discovered, mammography can be key in evaluating the lump to determine if it is cancerous.

Though mammography detects approximately 85% of all breast cancers—far more than other diagnostic exams such as breast ultrasound—researchers are searching to enhance the existing technology or discover new methods for discovering an even higher rate of breast cancers while in early stages. When detected early, breast cancer is highly treatable. However, women who are not diagnosed with breast cancer until it has progressed to advanced stages have far lower chances of successful treatment and survival.

As part of this effort to detect breast cancer in its earliest stages, Dr. Robert Speller and his colleagues at the University College London have developed diffraction enhanced breast imaging to identify very small but potentially cancerous breast cells. The device works by scanning over the breast just as normal x-ray does during mammography. However, the diffraction enhanced breast imaging system also consists of a second detector that measures the scattering effect or diffraction of the x-ray by the breast cells.

The technology works because breast cancer tumor cells have a unique method of reflecting x-rays, which differs from normal, non-cancerous breast cells. By identifying this unique "signature"
of x-ray scatter, researchers can determine which cells are cancerous and which are not.

According to Dr. Speller, the technology can identify cancers as little as four millimeters wide; quite a bit smaller than the 10 mm to 12 mm cancers that mammography typically detects. Therefore, in theory, if cancer cells are missed with mammography, they could be spotted with the second detector of the diffraction enhanced breast imaging system.

Though initial research is promising, the technology is still very new and requires additional testing to determine its effectiveness. One potential challenge is finding a way to attach the second detector and analyzer to existing mammography technology. Nevertheless, Dr. Speller and colleagues believe the diffraction enhanced breast imaging system may eventually be useful for detecting early breast cancers, particularly in young women whose dense breast tissue can eclipse cancers on traditional mammography x-ray films.

Until better technology is available, mammography is still the most effective method of screening for breast cancer. Experts recommend that all women 40 years of age and older receive mammograms every one to two years, and that all women 50 years of age and older receive a mammogram each year. Women 20 years of age and older should also practice monthly breast self-exams and receive regular clinical breast exams to help detect breast cancer.

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