Automated breast cancer diagnosis could help prevent unnecessary treatment

New technology that automates breast cancer diagnosis could help prevent thousands of women receiving unnecessary treatment, according to a UK startup firm.

A team of Cambridge University graduates are hoping to turn the genetic diagnosis system into a method for determining how likely a tumour is to spread – and have been recognised by the Royal Academy of Engineering for their efforts.

The researchers claim this would mean at least half of the women currently diagnosed with certain breast cancers in the UK could avoid treatment they would otherwise receive because of the limits of existing screening techniques.

‘We’ve identified that 50-80 per cent of cases of early stage breast cancer don’t progress to become invasive in the next 20 years,’ Hind Kraytem, biomedical engineer and CEO of the team’s company Radial Genomics, told The Engineer.

‘But all these women right now are treated with surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy and obviously these can have toxic side effects. You’re also saving on the cost, the waste of resources that are associated with unnecessary surgery.’

The group formed Radial Genomics after winning a competition to license an unused technology developed by US government research agency the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and was recently a finalist in the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Launchpad competition for young entrepreneurs.

The technology marginally improves the speed and accuracy of genetic breast cancer diagnosis by replacing the subjective opinion of a human pathologist with the objective assessment of software.

However, the Radial Genomics team, which also includes business graduate Nikolaus Wenzl and biochemist Grecia Gonzalez, believes the full potential of the technology is in improving the prognosis of patients’ cancers.

The system relies on the fact that genetic markers for cancer are specifically positioned within the nucleus of a cell according to how likely it is that a tumour will develop and become invasive.

Radial Genomics’ technology uses fluorescent tags to illuminate the relevant genes and then software to determine their radial distance from the edge of the nucleus.

‘There are several other [similar tests] but the information they provide is on the likeliness of recurrence,’ said Kraytem. ‘We’re the only ones looking at the likelihood of breast cancer becoming invasive, particularly we’re looking at the early stages.’

The company plans to market the technology via a centralised lab that would perform all tests on behalf of doctors, rather than as a hospital-based system or a handheld point-of-care device, because early-stage breast cancer diagnosis generally doesn’t demand an immediate response and it is easier to navigate laboratory regulation with a single facility.