New breast cancer detection method might prevent biopsies

Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

University Cancer Center researchers hope a technique they are developing will prevent unnecessary surgeries for people with potentially cancerous breast lumps.

Their findings were published in the Nov. 21 issue of the journal Magnetic Resonance in Medicine.

Currently, X-rays and surgeries are used to diagnose a potential breast cancer tumor. But these methods are not perfect.

A biopsy, a surgery in which doctors extract tissue from a breast tumor to determine if the tumor is cancerous, has its own side effects, said Caryl Range of the American Cancer Society.

“Even having a biopsy can disfigure the breast,” Range said.

The technique being studied involves detecting lumps and then measuring levels of a chemical compound called choline, all without taking a tissue sample from the breast lump.

University researchers have found that choline levels are higher in cancerous tumors, said Dr. Doug Yee, one of the study’s authors.

The long-term goal of the ongoing study, Yee said, will be to try to understand which women can avoid having a biopsy by detecting the higher choline levels in cancerous breast lumps without surgery.

Doctors first detect lumps using magnetic resonance imaging. During the process, a patient is slid into a tube-like chamber where magnetic pulses indicate to researchers if a troublesome lump exists.

“That’s been our biggest limitation: Women who don’t want to go into the tube,” Yee said of the tight confines inside the MRI machine.

After a lump is identified, a newer technique called spectroscopy identifies the choline levels in the lump, and whether it is cancerous.

Previous research methods did not attempt to detect the level of choline in lumps, he said.

“What we’re trying to do is not just see the lump, but figure out what the lump is doing,” Yee said. “We’re trying to develop a test to say ‘you have this much choline.’ “

Range said the study is an advance, but it is still too early to determine if such a technique will alleviate the need for some biopsies.

Biopsies are an expensive medical process, she said, and getting a sample of the possibly cancerous tissue can be difficult.

“Unless the spot is big enough, you may not even get the actual tumor itself on the first try,” she said.

A biopsy can also take an emotional toll on a woman, Range said.

Pulling out part of a lump’s tissue through a needle, or actually cutting into the breast, can leave scars on both the body and mind, she said.

“Any technique that can eliminate biopsies is something we would be supportive of,” Range said.