Laser-based breast scanner detects changes in breast tissue

A new laser-based scanner can detect subtle physiological changes in breast tissue that may lead to new ways to detect and treat cancer.

A new laser-based scanner can—for the first time without surgery or other invasive techniques—detect subtle physiological changes in breast tissue that may lead to new ways to detect and treat cancer, a research group at UC Irvine College of Medicine’s Beckman Laser Institute has found.

The research suggests that the scanner could diagnose breast cancer at earlier stages than currently possible, may more accurately detect cancer in younger women who are harder to diagnose, and may aid in the use of therapies such as chemotherapy and hormone replacement.

Bruce Tromberg, professor, and Albert Cerussi, postdoctoral fellow at the Beckman Laser Institute, developed the laser breast scanner, which uses a technique known as ‘frequency domain diffuse optical spectroscopy’ to detect minute physiological changes in the water, fat and hemoglobin making up female breast tissue. These changes matched known microscopic alterations in breast tissue that occur as women age. Changes in breast tissue components are possible indicators of the beginning of breast cancer.

‘This scanner yielded quantitative information about changes in breast tissue that cannot be obtained with noninvasive techniques like mammography, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or ultrasound,’ Tromberg said. ‘Because we can obtain precise information about changes in the way the components of breast tissue function, we hope to be able to detect precancerous and cancerous conditions earlier, especially in young women, whose breast tissue can be too dense for mammography.’

By scanning 28 volunteers, ages 18 through 64, the team measured how fat, water, hemoglobin (the iron-containing center of red blood cells) and other components changed as women aged. The hand-held scanner, which is slightly larger than an ultrasound device, used near-infrared light from lasers similar to those used in consumer electronics.

Frequency domain diffuse optical spectroscopy is a method by which the scattering of laser light waves is used to measure objects deep within tissues.

The scanner was able to determine the components of breast tissue despite the women’s age, hormone levels and menopause, or density of breast tissue. It also may be particularly valuable for monitoring the impact of chemotherapy and the risk of recurrence of the disease in women who have had breast cancer.

‘Mammography has been found to be much less effective for women who are younger than 35, compared to women after menopause. Even among women less than 50 years old, the technique misses cancer in 22 percent of cases,’ said Tromberg. ‘Other techniques may be more sensitive but require biopsy, or they don’t measure the changes in breast tissue function as precisely. Because the laser breast scanner uses diffuse optical spectroscopy, it is highly sensitive to subtle changes in tissue physiology, such as cellular growth and the proliferation of tumour blood vessels involved in angiogenesis.’

The researchers now are planning to test the device on a wider range of women, including those who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and those who are at high risk of developing the disease.