New camera helps detect breast cancer

A special camera, developed by astronomers, could eliminate the need for major surgery to find out how far breast cancer has spread within a patient’s body.

Astronomer Matthew Dallimore realised that the gamma-ray camera he had developed for investigating the night sky could have a useful role closer to home. He has just been awarded funding by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council to turn his bright idea into a piece of medical equipment.

One in 11 women in Britain will develop breast cancer in her life. At present, doctors have to remove the whole lymphatic system on one side of the body and analyse it in the laboratory to discover what stage the disease has reached.

In the UK, thousands of women undergo this ‘axillary lymph-node dissection’ each year and 45% of them are found to have cancer. It is a painful and disfiguring procedure and over 70% of patients go on to suffer post-operative complications. The new camera will replace this investigative surgery with a much less painful minor operation.

Matthew Dallimore explains ‘The camera is able to show the surgeon exactly where the first ‘sentinel’ lymph node close to the tumour is located. Medical research has shown that if this node is free of cancer, the rest of the system is also cancer-free. Removal of this single node is only a minor operation compared to the current procedure.

Once removed the node can be tested in the laboratory to determine whether it contains cancerous cells. Research has shown that this method is 95.5% effective in the determination of cancer spread. It eliminates the need for expensive surgery and the associated pain and post-operative complications.’

Matthew Dallimore said, ”We have demonstrated the performance of a small-scale medical detector. This funding will allow me to build and test a full-scale prototype, to develop the business plan to bring the device to an industrial partner and to turn the camera into a commercially available gamma-camera. If the venture is successful then I hope the camera could be used for other forms of cancer too.”