New imaging technology catches cancer earlier

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Almost 23,000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer in Canada last year. It is the second leading cause of cancer death in women. Finding cancer at the earliest possible stage is important. It means a greater chance of surviving the disease.

Mammograms are an excellent way of detecting small tumours that cannot be felt in an examination by a physician. However, they work best for women who don’t have dense breast tissue. Where breast tissue is very dense, usually in younger women, small tumours can be hidden from view.

A new imaging technology is being tested to improve detection of small tumours in dense breast tissue and provide new options in addition to mammography. GE Healthcare commercialized the technology, which uses an imaging device and a molecular probe tagged with a radioactive isotope to detect tumours. The probe targets and lights up the tumours and makes them visible with the use of a special camera. The procedure involves an injection of the probe and a scan with the molecular breast imaging device. There is almost no pressure on the breast and it offers a more comfortable experience than mammography. It takes about 30 – 40 minutes to complete the imaging study.

Hamilton was selected as the first site in the world to receive a new prototype of this technology following an international competition. The city rose to the top of the list thanks to its expertise in clinical nuclear medicine, SPECT imaging, probe development and its ability to recruit breast cancer patients into clinical trials. The clinical trials program is headed by Dr. Mark Levine. Hamilton’s McMaster University is also home to the Centre for Probe Development and Commercialization (CPDC), a world-class facility for creating new probes and bringing them to market. Dr. John Valliant leads CPDC as Scientific Director and CEO. He is developing new molecular imaging pharmaceuticals (probes) that will help increase the effectiveness of the GE device.

“CPDC’s next generation of probes can work alongside of this technology to help detect very small tumours, determine tumour aggressiveness, identify the best treatment and measure treatment effectiveness,” says Dr. Valliant. “This could help save time, money and hopefully more lives.”

The Juravinski Cancer Centre and Henderson General Hospital, at Hamilton Health Sciences, are conducting a clinical trial to find out how well this imaging method works. The clinical trial under way is for women who are at high risk of developing breast cancer. The trial will look at the camera’s safety and acceptability to patients as well as its ability to detect cancer. A second trial will follow and collect information from a larger group of patients. It will take two or three years before the technology is proven to be beneficial for patients.

“We are opening the door to new opportunities,” says Dr. Karen Gulenchyn, Chief of Nuclear Medicine at Hamilton Health Sciences. “It may help reduce the number of false-positive results in breast imaging because it will provide a clearer picture. This will spare women anxiety and unnecessary procedures. We also hope that new probes will provide more specific information about the tumours.”

Hamilton was also chosen by GE Healthcare because of the strong partnership that exists with Hamilton Health Sciences, McMaster University’s Oncology and Nuclear Medicine Programs, the CPDC and the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR).

The CPDC is one of the Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research funded by Industry Canada. It also received funding from OICR, whose research is focused on prevention, early detection, diagnosis and treatment of cancer. OICR supports imaging programs that are conducting research into better ways of finding cancer at an earlier stage.