National Institutes of Health green lights additional research into new breast imaging system

June 24, 2002

CLEMSON -- Cancer in pre-menopausal women tends to be more difficult to spot because their breast tissue is denser, often fooling traditional mammography into a false negative reading. Ironically, the cancers also tend to be more virulent and grow faster.

A Clemson University physicist is working on a laser-imaging system enabling more accurate views of breast tissue. Given the go-ahead from the National Institutes of Health, Clemson physicist Huabei Jiang will lead the five-year $1.38 million NIH research project. Laurie Fajardo, a radiologist with Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, and Leonard Schutz, an oncologist with Horizon Cancer Center in Spartanburg, will assist in the clinical evaluations.

The painless treatment could become a welcome adjunct to what some women have nicknamed "slammograms."

Early testing showed the system able to detect some growths not detected by a mammogram. It also successfully predicted whether tumors were benign or malignant, which could lead to a reduction in the enormous number of biopsies performed in the United States each year.

Healthcare statistics indicate that at least three out of four biopsies are negative, meaning that the tumor is harmless. In the absence of a definitive screening tool, most physicians opt for invasive tools like biopsies to rule out malignancies.

"Billions of dollars are spent each year for unnecessary biopsies," said Jiang. "If we could eliminate even half of the them, it would be an enormous savings in money, not to mention human pain and lost work productivity."

Jiang said he is encouraged by the early findings but cautioned that the research is in the preliminary stages, and that the technology itself is continually being refined. If proven successful in clinical trials, the imaging system could be a viable addition to mammograms within three years, he predicted.

Spartanburg's Schutz called the new technology "extremely promising," adding that "further studies will be necessary to determine if it works."

"I believe it's going to be a very important diagnostic tool. It may even become a screening tool," said Schutz. "But our clinical studies are extremely early. It's got promise, but it's not a reliable clinical tool at this point."

Approximately 250 women will take part in the clinical trials.

Because of its ability to "see through" dense breast material, the technology could also be a particularly useful tool for physicians treating women with fibrocystic tissue disease.

The optical tomographic imaging system produces an accurately detailed picture of the breast's interior by laser-scanning the breast at 64 points. The result is like a three-dimensional painting that uses light instead of paint. Blood vessels and other structures surrounding a tumor absorb and scatter the near-infrared light from the laser differently than does the surrounding normal tissue. Benign tumors show a different "color" than malignant tumors.

The Clemson team, which includes student researchers, continues to refine imaging hardware and software developed by Jiang.

The testing takes place while the patient lies face down on an exam table fitted with a special ring housing. Four laser rings encircle and lightly touch the breast. A one-ring prototype has already been through phase-one clinical trials at Greenville Hospital System.
The project was initially funded by the Greenville Hospital System-Clemson University Biomedical Cooperative. Early support included the NIH and the Department of Defense's breast cancer research program through the Army.

Clemson University

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