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Photoacoustic Breast Imaging Passes First Test

May 8, 2012
Written by: , Filed in: Breast Imaging
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A new breast-screening device, the Twente photoacoustic mammoscope, passed an important hurdle in the first phase of clinical testing, according to a study published Monday in Optics Express, the open-access journal of The Optical Society.

The device was developed by researchers at the University of Twente and Medisch Spectrum Twente Hospital, both of Enschede, Netherlands. It uses photoacoustics to detect breast tumors. The proof-of-concept study found that the mammoscope could detect breast tumors in 10 women and benign cysts in 2 more, and could distinguish between the two.

In all cases the lesions had already been detected by conventional X-ray mammograms. The depths of the lesions were estimated using ultrasound.

Researcher Michelle Heijblom, a PhD student at the university and lead author of the study, explained the significance of the trial:

While we’re very early in the development of this new technology, it is promising. Our hope is that these early results will one day lead to the development of a safe, comfortable, and accurate alternative or adjunct to conventional techniques for detecting breast tumors.

Heijblom was quoted in an Optical Society news release.

The mammoscope uses photoacoustics, the hybrid optical and acoustical imaging technique in which laser light triggers pressure waves detected by ultrasound. Blood hemoglobin readily absorbs the longer, redder wavelengths of light, so the technique shows a clear contrast between tumors, dense with blood vessels, and normal tissue. The Dutch device uses ultrasound to target specific areas of the breast to scan.

The mammoscope is built into a hospital bed. The patient lies face down so the breast to be scanned protrudes through a hole. The breast is slightly compressed by a glass plate—not as much as during a conventional mammogram.

As Heijblom suggested, the mammoscope remains a good distance from clinical readiness. Scans were confined to a “region of interest,” about 40 by 40 millimeters, that had already been flagged by mammography or ultrasound. The reason was to reduce scan time. But scans still took close to 25 minutes.

Of the 17 original study subjects, 3 could not be scanned because they found the mammoscope too uncomfortable or because the device did not allow for complete access to the region of interest (ROI)  in the breast. Two more subjects’ results “were technically unacceptable due to poor acoustic contact between breast and detector in the ROI,” according to the study.

But a technology that does not involve ionizing radiation and shows promising imaging ability is definitely worth watching. Heijblom acknowledged that the mammoscope “needs some technical improvements before it is a really valuable clinical tool.” She added: “Our next step is to make those improvements and then evaluate less-obvious potential tumors, benign lesions, and normal breasts with it.”

Related seminar: Breast Imaging and Intervention: A Comprehensive Review

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