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Scan Aims To Replace Painful Mammograms
June 29, 2018

Results of a study provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), suggests that up to 50% of women skip potentially life-saving mammograms often because the procedure can cause extreme discomfort and pain. Now researchers have developed a painless, light-based, non-radioactive, 15-second procedure that could revolutionize breast cancer screening and save lives.

Although early detection of breast cancer can significantly increase survival, the radioactive X-ray that requires painful squeezing of the breast to get a good picture is not a procedure that women eagerly seek to have done. Now Caltech researcher Lihong Wang, Ph.D., Bren Professor of Medical and Electrical Engineering, and his colleagues are using their expertise in imaging tissues with light and sound to address this problem. Their development of a revolutionary breast scanning system known as photoacoustic computed tomography (PACT) was reported recently in Nature Communications.

“The technique developed by Dr. Wang and his colleagues combines light and sound to peer noninvasively into tissues without the radioactivity of an X-ray,” explained Behrouz Shabestari, Ph.D., director of the Program in Optical Imaging at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, which funded the study. “PACT is also superior to MRI, which is expensive and sometimes requires the injection of contrast agents, commonly gadolinium. Gadolinium cannot be used in individuals with kidney disease and has recently been shown to accumulate in the bones and brain with unknown long-term effects.”

According to study information, the PACT technique involves pulses of harmless laser light capable of penetrating deep enough into tissue to hit the biological target. However, that light is completely blurred as it bounces and travels back through the tissue. This is where the acoustic part comes in. Sound travels very cleanly through tissues. In photoacoustic imaging the target is hit with light, which causes vibrations that return as a detailed image of the target in the form of sound, similar to ultrasound images.

During the breast scan, the laser specifically targets and causes the vibrations in the oxygen-carrying hemoglobin in the blood vessels. An array of ultrasonic detectors, placed around the breast of the patient, collect the ultrasonic signals and the result is a detailed picture of the blood vessel network in the breast. Because tumors develop very dense and disorganized vascular networks, these “knots” of blood vessels are easily detected by PACT.

The work was funded by grants from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, and from the National Cancer Institute.

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