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The future of breast cancer diagnosis

Pioneering ultrasound breast imaging systems to improve cancer outcomes

In the UK, around 1,000 women die every month from breast cancer. Through the National Breast Screening programme, 3 million women are annually invited for X-Ray mammography (XRM), but this technique has issues particularly with younger women whose breast density is high.

Of the 3 million invited for screening, only around 75% of women accept which could be partly caused by the discomfort of the compression procedure. Like all cancers, early and accurate detection increases survival rates and also leads to significantly lower treatment costs. Inaccuracies in current screening methods means only 20% of suspicious mammograms reveal cancer. These naturally trigger further tests and 20,000 unnecessary biopsies per year. There is therefore a need for more effective screening diagnostic methods.

As the UK’s National Metrology Institute, NPL is focused on the development of new techniques to support earlier diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. NPL scientists have developed a research platform for imaging of breast tissue, using Ultrasound Computed Tomography. The platform works by transmitting ultrasonic waves through the breast, which are detected by novel sensors.

Using the laboratory platform, the team have proven that UCT, using the new NPL sensors, creates quantitative images of breast phantoms mimicking inclusions such as cysts and malignant cancers. In comparison to XRM, this new technology is less invasive, eliminating the risks of exposure to ionising radiation. The new technology is also game changing in many ways, its quantitative nature allows the use of AI to compare scan results with the reference library of images linked to known pathologies and other clinical data promising fewer false positives and improved diagnostics.

Cancers have higher ultrasonic attenuation than background breast tissue. NPL studies have shown that the UCT system generates near artefact-free maps of the attenuation coefficient of simple test objects, and the first in-person studies of ultrasound attenuation have been completed.

NPL Fellow Bajram Zeqiri is leading on this work and he has outlined the future development of the UCT system: initially being used in diagnosis to identify specific cancer types and reduce biopsies, before ultimately potentially being employed for population screening.

NPL recognises the need to engage with medical professionals to shape the future of this technology. Taking place on 30th September 2020 and hosted by Professor Bajram Zeqiri and the NPL Team, our Breast Imaging Webinar will explore NPL’s new UCT system with the aim of gathering input from clinicians, medical physicists, radiologists and other interested health professionals on the clinical placement of this exciting technology and its potential impact.

16 Sep 2020