A new scanner that uses gamma rays to see changes in live cells may detect breast cancer even earlier than standard mammograms, U.S. researchers announced last week. If the procedure is shown to work in large groups of women, it may help doctors treat breast cancer at its earliest stages. The scanner would also be a more comfortable option for women, who now must suffer having their breasts pressed between cold, hard plates for mammograms. Martin Tornai, an associate professor of radiology and biomedical engineering at Duke University Medical Center, said he plans to start testing the device on women this spring.
The camera should be especially useful for detecting tumors in large or dense breasts, which are difficult to image using traditional mammography because X-rays often cannot penetrate them, Tornai told a meeting of breast cancer specialists in San Antonio. And the device can look for signs that cancer has spread to nearby tissue and lymph nodes, he added. The device may also be useful in determining how well chemotherapy or radiation therapy is working in breast cancer patients--perhaps showing dead cells not yet disposed of by the body.
The scanner works by first injecting a cancer-specific radioactive chemical into the bloodstream that is absorbed in large amounts by cancer cells. The scanner then checks for concentrations of the radioactive marker, with high concentrations in cancer cells showing up "as a little lightbulb in the middle of a dim space," Tornai said.