UW researchers developing new breast cancer detection technique

· Sep 13, 2001 Tweet

Last year 192,200 women were diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States. Of those diagnosed, 40,200 died. With no proven way to prevent the disease, early detection is vital in reducing mortality rates.
Susan Hagness, UW-Madison assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering, is researching a new breast cancer detection method called microwave mammography, which will have advantages over X-ray mammography.
“X-ray mammography is the best method available today to detect non-palpable breast cancer, but it is not without inherent limitations and risks,” Hagness said.
Led by Hagness, researchers at UW are working to develop a better method. Hagness, who began her research as a graduate student at Northwestern University, formed a multidisciplinary team, including Barry Van Veen, Dan van der Weide, and John Booske. The team has been working to combine engineering and medicine to develop a “microwave radar imaging method,” commonly called “microwave mammography.”
X-ray mammography misses approximately one out of every five malignant breast cancer tumors present at the time of the screening. This false-negative rate is high because mammography has limited sensitivity in women with dense breast tissue, most often younger women. Hagness said this was a concern because the amount of this tissue, called fibroglandular tissue, may be an independent risk factor for developing breast cancer.
False positive results, which occur when mammography results are read as abnormal, are also common, when in fact no cancer is present. Currently, 75 percent of all tested specimens turn out to be benign lesions.
X-ray mammography has other drawbacks, including uncomfortable breast compression and exposure to low doses of radioactive X-rays.
John Gofman, professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology at University of California-Berkeley, said there is a clinical need for a better method of detection.
“X-rays are a proven cause of every major type of cancer,” he said. “Therefore, the decision to neglect X-rays really causes the future X-ray-induced cancers that could have been prevented.”
Gofman said all researchers should to try to obtain all the benefits of medical and dental X-rays, which use lower doses of radiation per procedure.
“In the clinical system we are working towards, the patient lies on her back so that the breast is naturally flattened, and a scanner containing a number of antennas is placed near the center of the breast,” Hagness explained. “Each antenna transmits a very short burst of low-power microwave energy and records the microwave echo.”
Hagness noted that a malignant tumor would create a strong reflection because its microwave properties are very different from that of normal breast tissue. This is one of the potential advantages of microwave breast imaging.
Microwave breast imaging is more effective than X-ray mammography because the contrast between malignant and normal tissue at microwave frequencies is much greater than the contrast at X-ray frequencies. This shows microwave-imaging techniques have the potential for higher sensitivity in detecting early-stage tumors.
The other advantages of microwave mammography are the low-power microwave exposure (which is less risky than X-rays) and the elimination of uncomfortable breast compression.
“Microwaves, which are used everyday in wireless communications, are much lower frequency waves in comparison to X-rays and therefore are harmless at low-power levels,” Hagness said.
Though research is going well, it is still in the preliminary phase, and Hagness did not offer any details as to how soon it will be available. If all goes well, however, it will make a difference in the detection of this harmful disease.

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This article was published Sep 13, 2001 at 12:00 am and last updated Sep 13, 2001 at 12:00 am

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