Breast Cancer Biopsies Could Be Things of Past

After having four to five biopsies on each of her breasts, Marilyn Fentress has become somewhat of an expert on the surgeries.

She also knows how much it would mean to women not to have to go through one.

"Any invasive surgery throws your body out of whack," Fentress said. "I get tired from the anesthesia. It's hard on you, physically and mentally."

Like hundreds of thousands of women a year who get biopsies, Fentress does not have cancer. Now, doctors at the Riverside Diagnostic and Breast Imaging Center hope they've found a way to avoid such unnecessary biopsies: a high-tech camera that can pinpoint tiny tumors without removing any tissue. They also hope it can help find cancer earlier.

Doctors have tested the camera on 25 patients so far. Each time, it picked up cancer in women who had the disease and came back with negative results for women who didn't.

"It's early, but so far we've got a perfect batting average," said David Wymer, a radiologist and director of mammography services at Riverside. "This is something that potentially could have a major impact on finding breast cancer."

Researchers hope to test the camera on 100 patients by spring, and Wymer is talking to other local doctors about finding more patients for the study. If all goes well, researchers will share their results with doctors across the country and look for companies to market and sell the cameras.

Scientists at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility developed the technology behind the camera. It finds cancer by tracking an injected solution that contains small amounts of radioactive material. Doctors inject the solution into a patient's arm or hand, and it travels through the patient's body. Cancer cells absorb it faster than normal cells, likely because they're growing faster.

The radioactive material gives off energy that the camera converts into electronic signals, which show up as a light on a computer screen. Because tumors gobble up the material faster, their images are "hot spots" that are brighter than the images of normal tissue.

The idea is that if the camera shows a hot spot, women then would have a biopsy to make sure it's cancer. If there were no hot spots, doctors could choose to monitor the patient instead of doing surgery.

Nationwide, doctors do about a million breast biopsies a year after finding potential problems in mammograms. In more than 80 percent of cases, the woman doesn't have cancer, Wymer said.

For now, all patients in the Riverside study get a needle biopsy and a picture taken with the camera. In needle biopsies, doctors insert a needle and pull out a tissue sample about the size of a lima bean. Women go home the same day. Just a small number are in enough discomfort the next day to need a painkiller like Tylenol, Wymer said.

Still, it's not a pleasant experience. Fentress, a Norfolk resident and one of the patients in the study, has fibrocystic breast disease, which means she has a lot of benign lumps in her breasts. Doctors have to watch her closely to make sure none of the lumps is cancerous.

After her needle biopsy last month, Fentress had a little bruising and took six Tylenol pills the day after. The Riverside camera involved no pain at all, she said, and also would be able to give women faster results. In her case, both tests came back negative for cancer.

The Jefferson Lab worked on the technology in partnership with Hampton University. The camera is about the size of a pint of milk and can focus in on tiny areas of a breast. The radiation dose needed for it to work is less than is needed for a standard mammogram.

The camera did find one false positive - a biopsy showed no cancer - but doctors don't mind that as long as the camera doesn't miss cancer, Wymer said.

The camera is one of several medical products under way at the Jefferson Lab. The technology behind it is similar to a camera the lab developed for Dilon Technologies, a Newport News company.

Lab researchers are excited to see their equipment out in the real world.

"To think it could actually help someone - that's amazing," said Drew Weisenberger, a staff scientist. "That's a big payoff."

— Alison Freehling can be reached at 247-4789 or by e-mail at afreehling@dailypress.com

More Information

Patients interested in the Riverside study should call 594-3900. Women also can talk to their own doctors about participating in the study.