A laser diagnostic test, which ultimately could lead to an instant diagnosis of breast cancer at the time of a mammogram, will for the first time be evaluated using excised human breast tissue and lymph nodes. The study is being funded by a grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
Currently when a mammogram picks up abnormalities, a follow-up needle biopsy is required. About 70 to 90 percent of these tests come back negative, but not before a nervous wait for the results.
But the new laser technique, developed earlier at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) Central Laser Facility, could eliminate the need for a second hospital visit and the anxiety of waiting for the results when carried out at the same time as the mammogram. The method, known as spatially offset Raman spectroscopy (SORS), uses a laser to pinpoint objects deep beneath the skin, without an incision.
“This technique, if applied at mammography, could have a huge impact on those 75,000 patients a year in the UK having to return for additional biopsies, with associated anxiety, when they are found to have nothing wrong,” said lead scientist Nicholas Stone of the University of Exeter.
The test — already being used in security scanners to detect liquid explosives — measures signatures obtained as the laser light passes through the small bonelike crystals (calcifications) found in breast tissues to determine whether a benign or cancerous tissue is present.
Doctoral student Marleen Kerssens — funded by STFC’s Biomedical Network and the Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust — proved through tests on pork that the same concept could detect whether shadows picked up on mammograms are benign or malignant. Now, under the ESPRC grant, the investigators hope to optimize the technique’s sensitivity and penetration depth further and, for the first time, evaluate its performance on human breast tissue that has been removed during operation.
”I am really pleased this line of research can be continued with the support of ESPRC,” Kerssens said. “It is an exciting field of research, and translation of the SORS technique to a clinical setting has the potential to reduce the amount of false positives and therefore reduce patient anxiety.”
It will be a decade before the test can be routinely used in hospitals, the scientists said.
“It is very gratifying to see this technology, originally developed on our large facilities in the Central Laser Facility, being applied in so many different ways that will have such an impact on society,” said professor Pavel Matousek, inventor of the technique. “As well as developing it for future breast cancer diagnosis and for detecting counterfeit drugs we expect, in the future, to see the technology at airports scanning liquid explosives. This support from EPSRC enables us to keep driving this technique forward, for the timeliest benefit to both individuals and the health service.”
The grant was awarded as part of a £12.2 million investment by EPSRC in 15 creative engineering research projects to deliver major advances in health care. The projects funded will develop innovative technology that aims to improve the diagnosis and treatment of serious illnesses including cancer, improve patient outcomes, and help severely disabled people.