Wife’s experience inspires U researcher’s MRI project

by Tim Sturrock

Ten years ago, University bio-physicist Michael Garwood’s wife Lynne felt a lump in her breast.

It turned out to be benign, but the worry and emotional strain the two went through got Garwood thinking about how women are tested for cancer.

Though the lump’s presence was obvious, a mammogram didn’t detect it in Lynne’s breast. That’s not unusual, Garwood said, as mammograms miss approximately 25 percent of malignant tumors in women younger than 50.

Since the lump could be monitored physically, she decided against surgery or a needle biopsy, which Garwood said also isn’t always accurate.

“That’s what really hit it home for me. Women need a better option,” he said.

The experience eventually sent his research on a new course.

Next month, Garwood will begin a five-year, 400-patient study at the University’s Center for Magnetic Resonance Research. He and other researchers are investigating new ways to distinguish between benign and malignant tumors in breasts by using magnetic resonance imaging.

Garwood and his fellow researchers use magnetic fields to view and measure tissue on a molecular level.

The study is being funded by a recently awarded grant from the National Institutes of Health. A preliminary study Garwood and other researchers submitted to the NIH found 90 percent accuracy in detecting malignant breast tumors with MRI.

Other facilities are also experimenting with MRI to detect cancerous tumors, but the University is one of only two programs in the country using four-tesla machines for breast cancer research, said Dr. Mitch Schnall, a University of Pennsylvania researcher.

“Tesla” is the unit of measurement of magnetic flux in MRI machines. More tesla gives a machine higher definition images and an improved ability to see smaller structures.

Other labs studying breast cancer use 1.5-tesla magnets. The higher level of power that Garwood uses gives his research an edge, Schnall said.

Schnall’s lab also uses a four-tesla machine to view breast tumors. But Garwood’s lab is leading the field in imaging breast tumors and viewing their molecular makeup, Schnall said.

It’s the most influential work that can be done with MRIs: bridging the two types of research that magnet researchers produce -techniques in viewing molecules and the future medical applications these techniques provide, he said.

The focus of most MRI research involves the brain, where doctors have used MRI to detect malignant tumors for years, Garwood said.

Approximately 10 years ago, Garwood began using the techniques being pioneered in brain research. But three years ago, when he switched to human trials with breast cancer patients, he found these techniques didn’t transfer well, he said.

Images of tumors produced by the technology were obscured because the activity of fats in the breasts exceed that of the brain.

Part of Garwood’s study will allow his lab to further test a new method that distinguishes tumors from fat.

The new technique has proceeded far enough that he and other researchers submitted a study on the subject to Magnetic Resonance in Medicine, a medical journal. Garwood said he expects it to be published in a few months.

Dr. Doug Yee, one of Garwood’s collaborators, said that while he believes mammograms are still a useful tool and can help with prevention, he hopes one day they can be replaced by MRI because of its potential accuracy.

Yee said he hopes the procedure will become less expensive if MRI becomes more common in hospitals.

Still, Garwood said he has concerns about the research. He said he has lost sleep over the possibility of causing a patient unneeded anxiety by mistakenly diagnosing cancer.

Patients and their physicians are informed that the procedure is experimental, but the possibility of giving patients false information bothers him, he said.

Still, he said, in the 16 years he has worked with magnets it’s the most fulfilling work he has ever done.

And if it works, the sleep he’s lost might save patients from a few of their own restless nights.