NPL team develops ultrasound tech for earlier detection of breast cancer

Breast cancer could be diagnosed and treated sooner with a new detection technique developed by scientists at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL).

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The technique, demonstrated with in-person measurements of breast tissue, works by transmitting ultrasonic waves through the breast which are then detected by a new type of sensor resulting in maps that show how much ultrasound is lost in the tissue. 

The team at NPL conducted a study measuring the breast tissue of 12 nominally healthy volunteers aged between 19 and 65 years old. According to NPL, the study indicates that the relatively simple technique could be applied as a robust method for assessing the breast composition and provides encouraging results that can be applied in breast ultrasound scanner design to improvements in image reconstruction.

The results of the study were published in August by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and are available at IEEE Explore.

Breast cancer is the most diagnosed cancer in the UK and is the second most common cause of cancer mortality in women. 

Through the National Breast Screening programme, 2.5 million women are annually invited for X-ray mammography, but this technique has issues, particularly with younger women whose breast density is high. Breasts with high mammographic density appear cloudy in X-ray screening and this can lead to cancerous breast lesions being more difficult to detect. 

Breast density has also been shown to be a significant independent breast cancer risk factor. The charity Breast Cancer Now estimates there are 700,000 women in the UK with high breast density that puts them at increased risk of developing breast cancer.

The technology - when in a fully developed medical device - could meet an existing requirement for a relatively simple method for assessing the properties of breast tissue, particularly breast density. In comparison to X-ray mammography, this new technology is less invasive, more comfortable and safe as it eliminates risks associated with exposure to ionising radiation. 

The team plans to conduct further in-person studies to compare measurements from their research platform to conventional methods of measuring breast density.

In a statement, Daniel Sarno, senior research scientist, NPL said: “Over the last decade, there have been growing calls to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of breast screening programme – particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The ultrasound technology breakthrough made at NPL will enable clinicians to better distinguish different soft tissue types through traceable measurement, with applications in the breast for non-invasive breast density assessment, breast cancer diagnosis and therapy treatment tracking.”

Sarno continued: “While still in the research phase, we are encouraged by our in-person results and excited about the technology journey from benchtop to bedside.”