New detection method is better at spotting breast cancer

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The new method was shown to detect 40 percent more cancers than existing methods (Photo: Lund University)

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A research team at Lund University in Sweden has conducted a study to test the effectiveness of tomosynthesis breast screening against more conventional mammograms. The results are promising, showing the new technique to be better at detecting tumors, as well as being a more comfortable experience for the patient.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide. More than 1.7 million women were diagnosed with the disease in 2012, and it proved fatal for more than half a million patients in the same year. Currently, two-dimensional mammograms are used to screen for the disease, but it's thought that a more complex 3D X-ray technique, known as tomosynthesis, may be more effective.

The new method works on the same principle as tomography, acquiring X-ray images from several angles, combining them to show multiple layers of the patient's breast. This is superior to mammography, in which only a single image is produced, making it more difficult to spot tumors.

Aside from providing a more complex view of the tissue, tomosynthesis is also less uncomfortable for the patient, with breast compression halved in comparison to mammography. It's thought that this may encourage participation in screening programs.

A total of 7,500 woman aged 40 to 74 took part in the study, with the results showing the technique to have a 40 percent higher detection rating compared to mammography. The work represents the first large-scale study into the comparative effectiveness of the method.

The 3D X-ray technique also offers lower radiation doses and uses widely available equipment, easing the road to widespread adoption.

"We see a change as inevitable," said Lund University researcher Sophia Zackrisson. "Breast tomosynthesis will be introduced, it is just a question of when and on what scale."

Despite the obvious benefits of tomosynthesis over mammography, further testing is required before it can be widely introduced. As with existing screening techniques, overdiagnosis is a problem, though it's currently unknown exactly to what extent. The recall rate is also thought to be higher than with the existing technique, with healthy patients with benign tumors being called in for further testing, causing unnecessary stress.

The team will continue its work on tomosynthesis, focusing on the cost of the technique, which is currently a little higher than mammography. It's optimistic about the progress of the research, believing that wide spread introduction could occur in as little as five to ten years time.

Check out the video below for a look at the study.

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