New Method Combines X-rays with Harmless Red Light for Improved Breast Cancer Diagnosis

New Method Combines X-rays with Harmless Red Light for Improved Breast Cancer Diagnosis

A new advance in optical mammography, coupling harmless red or infrared light with X-rays, increases the sensitivity of the approach for breast cancer diagnosis and monitoring by up to 1,000 times, researchers say.

Italian researchers introduced the innovative device at the OSA Biophotonics Congress: Biomedical Optics meeting, held April 3-6 in Hollywood, Florida.

The majority of breast cancer diagnoses are made with X-ray mammography, but this method has limited sensitivity — only 50 to 75 percent of patients with a breast tumor are correctly identified as such — and because it uses ionizing radiation, it’s not without risk. X-ray mammography is also limited by factors such as a patient’s age and body mass index or weight, as well as the use of hormone replacement therapy.

While other imaging techniques, such as ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), are sometimes suggested, none is an effective replacement for X-ray mammography.

Optical mammography is not a new technique. The approach uses red light to measure several parameters, which include blood volume, oxygenation, and the amount of fat, water, and collagen present within the breast. Collagen has been linked to breast cancer onset and progression.

Optical mammography is more appealing than X-rays because it does not use ionizing radiation and does not require strong breast compression. Gentle pressure to the breast tissue is enough, and researchers are now developing 3-D detectors that use no compression at all, instead surrounding the breast tissue with light sources and detectors.

However, a major disadvantage of the technique is its poor spatial resolution, which is necessary to resolve small breast tumors. Researchers hypothesized that combining OM imaging with other imaging methods could help improve this shortcoming.

They developed a new instrument that incorporates red or infrared light with X-rays. The updated instrument includes some changes that eliminate the need for a pre-scan step and has increased sensitivity, making it more robust and cheaper.

Ferocino’s group now plans to assess if optical mammography can be used to monitor breast cancer patients and predict their responses to chemotherapy in clinical studies.

“This technique is able to provide information on the outcome of chemotherapy just weeks after beginning treatment, or possibly even sooner,” co-author of the work Edoardo Ferocino, from the Politecnico di Milano in Italy, said in a press release.

This research is part of a larger European project, called SOLUS, or “Smart Optical and Ultrasound Diagnostics of Breast Cancer,” aimed at combining optical imaging with ultrasound to improve the specificity of breast cancer diagnosis.