Women's Health

New Imaging Could Predict Whether Breast Cancer Will Spread

New Imaging Could Predict Whether Breast Cancer Will Spread

When it comes to the treatment of any type of cancer, the earlier the disease is caught and diagnosed, the better chance of success treatment has. Medical providers have worked to develop strategies for catching breast cancer at an early stage over the recent years. Women who may be more prone to the disease due to a family history are monitored more closely, and all women are encouraged to undergo routine testing in order to keep tabs on their health. While these strategies certainly represent an advance in treatment practices, the system isn’t perfect. Signs go unnoticed, women go untested, and far too many cases of breast cancer still develop each year. In order to continue in the fight against breast cancer, two different research teams have recently announced advancements in diagnostic technology that could help both identify breast cancer earlier and discern the severity of the condition in a less invasive manner.

Current practices

There are two different approaches to diagnosing breast cancer that are currently in use by the medical community: mammograms and proton MRI scans. While both of these methods can be useful ways of identifying breast cancer, they both have their downfalls as well. The problem with mammograms is that they involve x-ray machines and therefore exposure to radiation. Additionally, this method also tends to be generally unpleasant, which could contribute to an entry point barrier preventing more women from being tested. Mammograms are relatively cheap to perform, but when a suspicious area is detected a woman will still have to undergo a biopsy which is an invasive and extremely unpleasant procedure.

In addition to mammograms, proton MRI scans can be used to study in more details areas that look suspicious based on a mammogram. While a proton MRI scan can reveal useful information, they can produce false positive results which may send patients down a treatment path they didn’t need in the first place. In either case, while these methods do help to detect breast cancer they can be insufficient and invasive for patients. Two recent developments in diagnostic technology are hoping to change this reality.

MRI devices and sodium

A joint research team headed up by Brigham Young University and joined by collaborators from the University of Utah has developed new MRI technology that they believe will provide patients with a better diagnostic experience. They built this machine based on data that suggests patients who are developing breast cancer will have increased levels of sodium. Data suggests that tumors that are malignant will have increased levels of sodium in them, even at an early stage.

Their new MRI machine scans patients for sodium deposits and then allows medical providers to read these results in order to inform them about the patient’s status. This technology is more accessible than mammograms and far less invasive than completing a biopsy, so researchers believe that it will present a positive alternative that will be more popular among patients. Additionally, the MRI machines are able to scan patients and then produce high quality imaging results in about 20 minutes which is an incredibly quick turnaround time.

The research team is hoping to continue their efforts by developing an MRI machine that can deliver quick, high quality images of both sodium and proton levels in one easy scan and without having to reposition patients. While an MRI machine capable of these functions is still in the works, sodium based imaging is a reality thanks to the team from Brigham Young and the University of Utah and researchers are optimistic that it will be implemented in clinics in the near future.

Scanning for metastasis

While technology that can identify breast cancer at the early stages of the disease is incredibly important, it’s not the only area in diagnostic research that could benefit from technological advancements. Once a patient has been diagnosed with breast cancer and begun treatment, it can be difficult to determine whether that treatment has been successful, or whether the cancer will metastasize and spread into the lungs. When cancer does metastasize and spread into other regions of the body, particularly into the lungs with breast cancer, it becomes much more difficult to treat and a patient’s prognosis becomes less optimistic.

A team of researchers from King’s College London in collaboration with University College London and University Hospital Muenster have recently published a study in Theranostics which indicates that a new, non-invasive imaging technique of the lungs could predict whether or not cancer will metastasize. The study was actually completed on a sample of mice, but researchers believe that the results would translate to humans as well. Research already indicates that myeloid-derived suppressor cells or MDSCs indicate an area is more susceptible and more likely to develop cancer. The research team created a radioactive tracer molecule that could keep track of clusters of MDSCs that were growing. In the case with the mice, the researchers found that the tracer cell was activated and could be found by researchers in the lungs of the mice long before any cancer actually spread into the lungs.

At this point medical providers rely on information about a preexisting tumor to determine whether or not it is likely to spread to other areas. While this information can be helpful, it’s not the best or most accurate way to predict whether or not the cancer will metastasize. The tracer is a better predictor of what the cancer will do because it indicates what condition the lungs are in and can therefore inform medical providers about the patient’s vulnerability. In addition to being a more accurate predictor of whether or not cancer will metastasize, watching the tracer molecule also requires a very non-invasive imaging technique that is easy to perform.

From here, researchers will work to develop a stronger tracer molecule that will be better suited to human subjects. After that molecule has been created, researchers will work to move into human trials in order to test these results. If their hypothesis is correct and the tracer works in humans the same way it did in mice, then medical providers could be able to predict at a much earlier stage what course a patient’s cancer will take. If providers know that cancer is likely to metastasize, then they can create a more aggressive treatment plan for the patient at an earlier stage which will then be more likely to have successful results.

Final thoughts

The fight against breast cancer often begins with detection. Campaigns to raise awareness about breast cancer and to diminish any stigma attached to the condition have done a great job over the years of making more people conscious about the need to be mindful. While this attitude towards breast cancer is certainly a positive step, medical providers also need the tools to identify and track the disease if they are going to offer effective treatment. Both the teams from Brigham Young and the University of Utah, and from King’s College London in collaboration with University College London and University Hospital Muenster are working to develop the tools available to medical providers to help in the diagnostic process By creating methods that are more accessible, accurate, and provide more thorough information, medical providers will be able to implement better treatment plans at earlier stages and in turn have more success. 

You can read more about the team from Brigham Young and the University of Utah at Science Daily, and the research by the team at King’s College London in collaboration with University College London and University Hospital Muenster at Breast Cancer Now.