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Imaging Idea May Yield Instant Breast Biopsies

November 26, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Breast Imaging, Diagnostic Imaging
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A University of Illinois team has developed a new imaging technique that it says can produce clear, accurate breast-tissue biopsies in less than five minutes.

Current diagnostic methods, which involve a pathologist’s staining a sample of suspect tissue, then examining the cells under a microscope to see whether their shape or structure looks unusual, can take a day or more.

“The diagnosis is made based on very subjective interpretation—how the cells are laid out, the structure, the morphology,” said Stephen A. Boppart, PhD, MD, the leader of the research team, as quoted in a university news release. “This is what we call the gold standard for diagnosis. We want to make the process of medical diagnostics more quantitative and more rapid.”

Dr. Boppart is something of a Renaissance man. His home departments at Illinois are electrical and computer engineering and bioengineering, and he has affiliations with the department of internal medicine, the Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory, and the Institute for Genomic Biology. He also heads the Biophotonics Imaging Laboratory at the university’s Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.

His team’s new microscopy technique is called nonlinear interferometric vibrational imaging (NIVI). In tests on rat breast tissues with cancer cells, it produced easy-to-read, color-coded images of tissue outlining clear tumor boundaries, with more than 99 percent confidence, in less than five minutes.

Instead of focusing on cell structure, NIVI creates images based on molecular composition. Normal cells have high concentrations of lipids. Cancer cells produce more protein. NIVI distinguishes between the two, mapping tumor boundaries with an uncertainty zone of just 100 microns—far more precision than most pathologists are able to provide.

“Sometimes it’s very hard to tell visually whether a cell is normal or abnormal,” Dr. Boppart said. “But, molecularly, there are fairly clear signatures.”

NIVI detects those signatures by enhancing the unique vibrational state of energy in each type of molecule’s bonds. The technique uses two beams of laser light to excite molecules in a tissue sample. With the resonance of the molecular vibration thus enhanced, NIVI can identify the type of cell.

The researchers are working to broaden the applications of their technique. “As we get better spectral resolution and broader spectral range, we can have more flexibility in identifying different molecules,” Dr. Boppart said. “Once you get to that point, we think it will have many different applications for cancer diagnostics, for optical biopsies, and other types of diagnostics.”

The study based on the research was published online earlier this week in the journal Cancer Research.

Related seminar: Pittsburgh Breast Imaging Seminar

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