3D imaging could improve breast cancer detection

Courtesy Koning Corporation


UMass Medical School is one of five institutions in the country investigating new techniques for producing three-dimensional images of breast cancer tissue using dedicated breast computed tomography (CT). These high-resolution 3D images, which are more accurate than traditional two-dimensional mammography, could allow for earlier detection and treatment of breast cancer. 

Over the last 25 years, a woman’s chances of surviving breast cancer have dramatically improved, thanks in large part to the use of mammography to screen for masses and early signs of cancerous tissue in the breast. Today, according to the American Cancer Society, a woman whose cancer is detected early—in the first stage of the disease when it is most treatable—has as much as an 88 percent chance of surviving five years post diagnosis. 

“Mammography is a wonderful tool,” said Stephen J. Glick, PhD, professor of radiology and one of the researchers perfecting the technology behind dedicated breast CT technology. “But it has its limitations. Many cancers are missed because mammography is only a two-dimensional image of a three-dimensional object.” 

Mammography uses low-dose X-rays to produce images of the breast that help reveal suspicious areas. These images, while a great asset in diagnosing breast cancer, can be fuzzy, due to a lack of contrast, or difficult to read because other tissues or structures might be hiding lesions. 

Dr. Glick and colleague Andrew Karellas, PhD, professor of radiology, have received more than $3 million in National Institutes of Health funding to investigate the feasibility of a dedicated breast CT system, which takes low-dose images from multiple points of view through breast tissue. These images are combined using a mathematical operation to produce a 3D illustration of the breast that is free of overlapping tissue structures that would obscure a traditional mammography image. This 3D image provides radiologists a better diagnostic tool for identifying potentially cancerous lesions.

Srinivasan Vedantham, PhD, assistant professor of radiology, is also part of the team at UMass Medical School that is working on technological improvements and on the design and implementation of clinical trials. 

“These images provide us with exquisite detail of the tissue anatomy that we would otherwise not have,” said Glick. “It could help us identify masses and microcalcifications at an earlier stage when they are most treatable.” 

Glick and Dr. Karellas are currently collaborating with researchers at the University of Rochester, where patients are being scanned under an experimental protocol with one of the prototype CT systems. Glick and Karellas would like to bring a prototype of the dedicated breast CT system to UMMS. “This is an area we’ve been investigating for 10 years,” said Glick. “We are among the leaders in the field and hope to maintain that position by creating a dedicated system here.” 

Fundraising is underway to bring a prototype of the dedicated breast CT system to UMMS. To date, more than $165,000 has been raised, including proceeds from the Fund-a-need segment of the live auction at the UMass Medical School/UMass Memorial Winter Ball in December and from Pink—Lighting the Way to a Cure annual breast cancer event in October. Among the generous contributions to Pink was a $25,000 gift from the William J. McKee Foundation.