Gamma camera identifies precancerous breast cells

April 30, 2004

Researchers at Duke University Medical Center have developed a breast scanner that identifies subtle changes in breast cells that may be an early sign of cancer. The modified gamma camera spots these changes before they are visible with screening

Researchers at Duke University Medical Center have developed a breast scanner that identifies subtle changes in breast cells that may be an early sign of cancer. The modified gamma camera spots these changes before they are visible with screening mammography, according to the Duke team.

The ultimate goal behind developing the device is to enable doctors to treat breast cancer less invasively and more successfully. The technology's developer concedes, however, that a marketable system may be several years off.

Work on the prototype began five years ago when Martin Tornai, Ph.D., an associate professor of radiology and biomedical engineering at Duke, combined a LumaGEM gamma camera from Gamma Medica of Northridge, CA, with high-precision positioning equipment and image reconstruction software. The result was a rotating gamma camera that orbits the breast, creating-after injection of a radiotracer-a high-resolution 3D image.

"With this compact camera, we can contour the breast and minimize degradation to the spatial resolution-a fundamental problem in SPECT," Tornai said. "This has never been done for dedicated breast imaging."

The system, which Tornai developed in collaboration with Duke colleagues James Bowsher and Caryl Brzymialkiewicz, creates a kind of functional mammotomogram that might be particularly useful in screening women with large or dense breasts, as well as those at high risk for developing breast cancer. It might be used to augment screening mammography, or to help monitor the course of both chemotherapy and radiation therapy by detecting changes to the cancer cells.

"The sooner you can diagnostically identify that a person may be developing cancer, the quicker you can get her into the appropriate treatment regimen," Tornai said.

Tornai wants to market the device, but not before clinical trials have proven its effectiveness. The Duke researcher is hoping to begin testing soon. He predicted the price of a marketable product would be competitive with that of a screening mammography system.

"We are discussing (the development of a marketable product) with some companies," he said. "Others are looking into dedicated breast imaging using clinical gamma cameras, as we have in the past, but no one else does it compactly and in 3D like we do."