No woman likes having her breasts squished between plates, which is why we’re thrilled to hear that the mammogram may be on the way out

For women over 40, going for a mammogram every year or two is a dreaded necessity.

Although it can save lives by detecting breast cancer early, mammograms are less than ideal.

Not only does it require women to have their breasts to be painfully squished between plates, but it also exposes them to X-ray radiation.

Many women put it off

A 2013 study found that as many as half of women who were avoiding their mammograms said the pain was the reason why.

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Mammography also has trouble with breasts that are “radiographically dense,” or somewhat opaque to X-rays.

In addition, mammography tends to overdiagnose, causing around half of women to receive a false positive diagnosis at some point in their lives.

Related: Could mammograms become a thing of the past?

New and improved breast cancer scanner

Caltech researchers say they have developed something better: a laser-sonic scanner that can find tumours in as little as 15 seconds by shining pulses of light into the breast.

The scanning system, known as photoacoustic computed tomography, or PACT, was developed in the lab of Lihong Wang, Caltech’s Bren Professor of Medical Engineering and Electrical Engineering.

How it works

PACT works by shining a near-infrared laser pulse into the breast tissue. The laser light diffuses through the breast and is absorbed by oxygen-carrying hemoglobin molecules in the patient’s red blood cells, causing the molecules to vibrate ultrasonically.

Those vibrations travel through the tissue and are picked up by an array of 512 tiny ultrasonic sensors around the skin of the breast.

The data from those sensors are used to assemble an image of the breast’s internal structures in a process that is similar to ultrasound imaging, though much more precise.

PACT can provide a clear view of structures as small as a quarter of a millimetre at a depth of four centimetres. Mammograms cannot provide soft-tissue contrast with the level of detail in PACT images, Wang says.

Because the laser light at the currently used wavelength is so strongly absorbed by hemoglobin, PACT can construct images that primarily show the blood vessels present in the tissue being scanned. That’s useful for finding cancer because tumours can grow their own blood vessels, surrounding themselves with a dense network of vascular tissue. Those vessels provide the tumours with large amounts of blood and allow the tumours to grow quickly.

Quick and painless procedure

During a PACT scan, the patient lies face down on a table that has a recess containing ultrasonic sensors and the laser. One breast at a time is placed in the recess, and the laser shines into it from underneath.

Since the scan is quick, taking only 15 seconds, the patient can easily hold their breath while being scanned, and a clearer image can be developed.

“This is the only single-breath-hold technology that gives us high-contrast, high-resolution, 3-D images of the entire breast,” Wang says.

The speed with which a PACT scan can be performed gives it advantages over other imaging techniques. For example, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans can take 45 minutes. MRI scans are also expensive and sometimes requires contrast agents to be injected into the patient’s blood.

The PACT technology has already been licensed by a company, of which Wang is a founder and shareholder, that plans to commercialise it and conduct large-scale clinical studies, Wang says.

“Our goal is to build a dream machine for breast screening, diagnosis, monitoring, and prognosis without any harm to the patient,” he says. “We want it to be fast, painless, safe and inexpensive.”

Source: California Institute of Technology via

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