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Researchers look to image mapping for breast cancer detection

Briony Foy is fearful of breast cancer  
October 23, 1998
Web posted at: 2:46 p.m. EDT (1846 GMT)

From Medical Correspondent Dan Rutz

MADISON, Wisconsin (CNN) -- Hundreds of women in the Midwest are about to take part in a medical trial to study if an imaging system that uses no X-rays can be trusted to diagnose breast cancer.

This new procedure may help women like Briony Foy, whose mother died of breast cancer at an early age. Like many middle-aged women, Foy's breast tissue is naturally lumpy and dense, making cancer screening difficult.

"I mean every time I get a mammogram ... they say, 'well, you know it's pretty hard to see anything on your breasts,'" Foy said. "I'm like, well then okay, what do we do next?"

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

An MRI scanner houses a powerful magnet that surrounds a cylinder. While you lie within the cylinder, magnetic energy causes your body's hydrogen atoms to give off radio-frequency waves. A computer translates the pattern of waves into a visual image.

Unlike computerized tomography (CT), MRI can create an image of tissue slices from any direction or plane, allowing the radiologist to see images from previously unobtainable angles. MRI also creates greater contrast in soft tissues, making the test's images the clearest and most detailed.

This scan is used to detect small tumors, aneurysms and lesions in your brain and spine. MRI is also used for diagnosing joint, muscle and bone conditions as well as bone marrow disorders.

An MRI takes between 15 minutes and an hour, depending on the type of examination. Atlhough MRI is the newest test, it's not the best tool in all cases. X-ray, ultrasound and CT continue to play important roles in diagnosing health problems.

Courtesy Mayo Clinic Health Oasis

The answer is often nothing. Many women are just left to wait and see what happens.

While a lot of attention is focused on the importance of breast cancer screening, much less is said about its limitations.

Researchers are hoping image mapping may relieve the uncertainty and anxiety of early cancer detection.

Professor Hadassa Degani of Israel's Weizmann Institute uses MRI images, which require no X-ray images to distinguish cancerous from benign breast lumps.

"Breast cancer, because of the need to have early detection and accurate means of diagnosis, is probably one of the first areas, that I as a woman or as a scientist, would like to see this potential of the method be implemented," Degani said.

At the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Frederick Kelcz has been using MRI for several years as a tie breaker to help rule cancer in or out for women whose standard examinations are inconclusive.

"It's basically those patients on whom we've done the mammography, we've done the ultrasound," Kelcz said. "We still can't figure out what's going on and we're somewhat concerned about what we see."

Kelcz and some Chicago area doctors will help test MRI as a general screening tool for breast cancer.

Women with tumors of unknown origin will be routinely offered MRI in addition to biopsies, where suspicious tissue is removed and examined under a microscope.

If the electronic imaging proves reliable, it could eventually reduce the need for surgical biopsies.

"If we come up with this clinical trial with very good results, I see no reason why other ones wouldn't use it," Degani said.

Once proven to be accurate, she said the MRIs could also be used to finding cancers elsewhere in the body.

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