The heat is on for breast cancer

A device for detecting and treating breast cancer without causing the painful and unpleasant side effects of chemo and radiation therapies could begin clinical tests in 2006.

The ActiveFU device, which combines magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to locate and diagnose cancerous tissue, and high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) to ‘cook’ the cells, could also dramatically reduce NHS costs as it can be used as an outpatient treatment. The Institute of Cancer Research and Royal Marsden NHS Trust are involved in the development of the device.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in England and Wales, and the most common cause of cancer death in women, killing 11,500 in 2002. Incidence is also increasing, rising by 70 per cent from 1971 to 2000, the latest year for which figures are available.

By combining the ultrasound with MRI imaging, operators have a good view of the affected area during treatment, improving their control of the procedure, said Hugo Brunsveld van Hulten, the system’s developer. ‘The MRI imaging device also provides thermal images of the heat levels taken up by the body. This information is used to control the effect of the heat input of the HIFU,’ he said.

Operators must ensure the patient is not subjected to the ultrasound for too long, as this could cause burns, while they have to be certain enough heat has been applied to the cells to kill them.

The technology, which could be modified to treat other small and localised tumours, is being developed using space technology at ESA’s European Space Incubator.

Non-magnetic piezoelectric motors mechanically direct the ultrasound transducer to the cancer cells without interfering with the MRI. There are also clear divisions between the frequencies used by the HIFU and MRI, to prevent interference, which could lead to ghost images on the scans.