Scientists from Clemson University are developing an imaging system th Scientists Study Laser Technology to Help Detect Breast Cancer (dateline March 29, 2000) | Breast Health News | Imaginis - The Women's Health & Wellness Resource Network

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Scientists Study Laser Technology to Help Detect Breast Cancer (dateline March 29, 2000)

Scientists from Clemson University are developing an imaging system that uses laser technology to detect breast cancer without having to compress the breast. Although the research is still preliminary, the scientists are encouraged by early findings which show that their "optical tomographic imaging system" can distinguish between cancerous and non-cancerous breast tumors. Further trials are expected to begin soon, some of which will compare laser imaging to standard x-ray mammography and other supplemental breast exams, including ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging.

The optical imaging system works by emitting laser beams (infrared light) toward the breast at 16 different points. Computer programs then reconstruct photon patterns of the breast into detailed images. According to researcher Huabei Jiang, an assistant professor of physics at Clemson University, and his team, it is possible to identify cancerous tumors with the technology because blood vessels and other structures around these tumors absorb and scatter infrared light from the laser differently than surrounding normal breast tissue.

In a preliminary trial of 10 women, the scientists were able to detect five cancerous tumors and one non-cancerous tumor, all of which were later confirmed with breast biopsy.  According to the researchers, some of the tumors were only five millimeters in diameter—so small that standard screening mammography would not have been able to detect them.

Clemson University employee Judy Link participated in the first trial and received a benign (non-cancerous) diagnosis. "My procedure was painless, and I tested negative—you can’t get better than that," said Link in a Clemson news release. "I have friends who don’t get mammograms because the procedure is uncomfortable for them. I’m glad another option may eventually be available for them."

While early research is promising, Dr. Jiang and his colleagues still have additional hurdles to overcome. One problem with the laser technology is that light tends to scatter widely inside breast tissue, making it difficult to pinpoint tumors. Dense breast tissue (often found in younger women) also poses problems for optical imaging.

However, the Clemson researchers are also developing a second laser imaging system that will use 64 laser points instead of 16 and will provide three-dimensional images of the breast. This new system will help decrease the amount of time it takes to image a breast using laser technology, from approximately 10 minutes per breast to around three minutes per breast. Another company, Imaging Diagnostic System, Inc., has already developed a similar three-dimensional system which is already being marketed in Europe and tested in clinical trials in the United States.

Several upcoming clinical trials will further investigate the effectiveness of laser imaging in helping to detect breast cancer. Britton Chance, an optical imaging researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, plans to compare laser imaging to mammography and other breast imaging techniques in a trial this summer. Dr. Jiang and the Clemson researchers also plan to test their new three-dimensional laser imaging system in a trial involving over 100 patients.

However, to become a practical alternative or supplement to mammography, the researchers will have to show that the laser technology can find cancers that mammography cannot. Currently, mammography is the only exam approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to help screen for breast cancer in women who do not show any signs of the disease. Mammography detects approximately 85% of all breast cancers, which better than any other breast imaging technology available today.

Therefore, all women 40 years of age and older should have yearly screening mammograms in addition to yearly physician-performed clinical breast exams and monthly breast self-exams.  Women younger than 40 should still receive clinical breast exams at least every three years and practice monthly breast self-exams. Supplemental exams, such as breast ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (breast MRI) are FDA approved to further investigate breast abnormalities first detected with screening mammography or physical exam.

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