Duke researchers are developing a new breast scanner that may actually spot cancerous lesions before they can be felt with the hand or found through traditional mammograms.
A gamma ray camera aims to spot cancerous lesions early.
"The device rotates around the breast ... collecting the data as it rotates around the breast," Duke researcher Martin Tornai said.
The camera collects a series of images from several angles, unlike a traditional mammogram that offers one flat picture.
Tornai said a radioactive tracer would be injected into the bloodstream and hungry cancer cells would absorb the material. The gamma ray camera then spots the lesions as bright white lights.
"We've been able to see 4 mm lesions, which are very small masses relative to the approximately marble-size 1 centimeter-type lesions that you might be able to actually feel in your breast," he said.
The camera can also detect lesions that are even smaller than what X-rays can detect.
The early detection of breast cancer tends to be easier with smaller breasts. With the new technology, doctors will be able to better study large, dense breasts.
In fact, patients would not even need to remove their bras. Tornai said there is no breast compression with the new technique.
"In fact, a woman would just lie on the table and her breast would hang pendant quite comfortably," he said.
Tornai does not see the scanner as a replacement for mammograms, but as another useful tool.
Testing will begin with women this spring. If it is successful, it could be a huge advance in early breast cancer detection.
"The earlier you catch a cancer, the better it is to get [the patient] in for some course of therapy and hopefully cure that cancer," Tornai said.
The dose of radiation injected into patients for the breast scanning procedure is the same amount as a person would normally absorb naturally in a year.