Low compression alternative for breast cancer screening

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Getting a mammogram every two years for breast screening helps make sure any problems are caught at an early stage. The earlier you find it, the better. Early detection when the cancer is small leads to an increased chance of successful treatment and a less likely chance of the cancer spreading.

Most women over the age of 50 should be familiar with the mammography screening procedures. A plate is pressed down to slowly flatten the breast while an X-ray image is taken. While this may not be the most comfortable procedure for anyone, compression of the breast can be particularly painful in younger women, who tend to have denser breast tissue. More importantly, the dense tissue in young women also leads to a lower chance of mammography being effective because the tumour is harder to detect using this test.

There is a clear need to find a way to effectively detect tumours in these young women who are at a high risk of developing breast cancer, in order to identify the cancer in its early stages. Dr. Alla Reznik, of the Thunder Bay Regional Research Institute and Lakehead University, is venturing to do this, with the development of her Portable Positron Emission Mammography (PEM) device.

Dr. Reznik stresses that the importance and significance of the mammography test should not be underestimated. “Mammography remains a primary tool which significantly reduces mortality from breast cancer and is still the most efficient way of detecting breast cancer in woman over 50 years of age. However, there is always room for improvement, especially in cases of women who have to be tested very often at early ages.” She is referring to women who have a family history of breast cancer, who are therefore at an increased risk of development. Breast cancer in high-risk women is known to have early onset, and women have to be screened yearly at a substantially younger age than women at an average risk.

So how does the PEM technique work differently than mammography? Mammography uses low dose X-rays to image the breast, showing the dense mass of a tumour in contrast to the breast tissue. But in dense breasts, this can make the image more difficult to interpret. PEM, on the other hand, is a molecular breast imaging modality, which distinguishes biological processes and functional properties of the cancerous cells compared to the normal cells, using a radiotracer to highlight areas of abnormality. This allows for detection of small masses, regardless of their density.

Dr. Reznik’s first goal is to build a prototype model of this device, with the help of her research team at the Thunder Bay Regional Research Institute and graduate students of Lakehead University. Once the technical innovation is complete, she is excited to embark on clinical trials using her technology to prove it is a suitable screening technique, with patients at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre.  She also has high hopes to one day introduce this portable device into Thunder Bay’s surrounding regions and communities to increase remote access to screening.

Dr. Reznik greatly anticipates the day that the women of Thunder Bay who are at high-risk for breast cancer can benefit from the use of the PEM screening device. “I am thrilled to be a part of the Thunder Bay Regional Research Institute with its commitment to translational research, providing a well-defined pathway to clinics particularly through its partnership with the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre.”