New Devices Aim to Catch Breast Cancer Sooner

Doctors hope several technologies will help diagnose breast cancer sooner.

Nov. 7, 2007 — -- While most women are familiar with the traditional mammogram used to detect breast cancer, a new technology has made it possible to find cancer earlier.

Duke University has the only SPECT-CT machine in the world, which produces three-dimensional pictures inside a woman's breast.

Scientist Martin Tornai said the machine has the ability to see smaller things than a conventional mammogram. It even sees a lesion on a patient's chest wall, which is a much harder place for a mammogram to penetrate.

Tornai said the most exciting thing about SPECT-CT is that it will not only detect tumors, but also chemical changes in breast cells that are becoming malignant -- before the tumor forms.

"We're not looking at something that indicates cancer is there. We're looking at the cancers," Tornai said. "That really allows us to potentially catch the cancers earlier, especially since we know where they are three-dimensionally."

The device only has been tested on a handful of patients, and Tornai said it could be 10 to 20 years before it is available generally.

But the SPEC-CT isn't the only cutting-edge breast cancer technology looking to aid patients.

Thermography and Breast Cancer

At New York Presbyterian/Weil Cornell in New York City doctors are testing a new computerized version of an old technology. The infrared technology is called thermography, and it was created decades ago to map the heat from an enemy missile that might be approaching the United States.

Because growing cancer produces extra blood vessels and blood vessels produce extra heat, the device may be able to see it.

A camera takes a picture looking at the temperature gradient. The machine works by letting cool air blow on a patient's breasts after she disrobes. Generally, people have extra blood vessels in the neck and face, but if extra vessels show up in a breast it could be a troubling sign.

Patient Karina Sakmar took the test in part because her family history includes breast cancer. She is in the high-risk category.

"I'm hoping this will be a way to detect any problems in my somewhat denser breast tissue," she said.

So far, neither her mammogram nor her sonogram has shown cancer, but with the new machine the doctor did detect a particular area in her upper right breast that looks suspicious.

The approach is so new that it can still reveal a false positive, so it's unknown if the tissue actually is cancer.

But scientists will learn more from the 21 machines now scattered across the country.

Mammography Still Best Bet

Doctors said patients' best bet for now is using digital mammography to see the cancer in the smallest possible stage, which can make a huge difference. It can detect things traditional mammographies can't.

Sixty percent of the country has access to digital mammographies.

"I feel like it took me two centuries forward," said Dr. Karen Katz. "I can see so many things that I never saw before."

"It also is significant when you can put the previous years' mammogram right on top of the mammogram that we're looking at this year," she added.

So the hope of medicine right now is as long as there is no cure for breast cancer, every little step in detecting it can make a huge difference in a life.

"This is not a presidential campaign and it's not like we're only gonna have one, you know, winner, " said Dr. Rache Simmons. "In this situation, we need to use the best of all of our testing in order to help each woman with early detection of breast cancer."