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New imaging technique could identify breast cancer patients most likely to benefit from chemotherapy

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A new medical imaging technique could help identify which breast cancer patients will benefit most from chemotherapy as soon as two weeks after beginning treatment. Developed by researchers at Columbia University in the United States, this non-invasive technique using red and near-infrared light could help medical professionals tailor treatment to individual cases more effectively.

Currently, less than half of women treated with neoadjuvant chemotherapy for invasive breast cancer — administered five to six weeks before surgery to eliminate active cancer cells — achieve a complete response. Patients who achieve a complete response have a lower risk of cancer reoccurring.

To determine whether the treatment is effective as quickly as possible, researchers at Columbia University in New York have developed a new imaging technique using red and near-infrared light to identify which breast cancer patients will respond to chemotherapy. They tested the technique on 34 patients with invasive breast cancer between June 2011 and March 2016. Images were obtained before and two weeks after starting chemotherapy.

Patients were asked to hold their breath for at least 15 seconds to help the scientists visualize blood flow in the breasts while capturing the images. The researchers then compared the images with the patients’ outcomes after five months of chemotherapy.

While blood flows freely through healthy breast tissue, it gets soaked up by tumors, inhibiting blood flow in breasts with tumors, the researchers explain.

This new technology involves observing the vasculature system in breasts, assessing blood flow to identify healthy tissue and cancerous tissue via 3D images.

The images are taken in 10 minutes, compared to 30 to 90 minutes for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Plus, the images let the scientists see how a tumor is responding to chemotherapy earlier than other imaging techniques.

Other imaging technologies, such as MRI, X-ray and ultrasound, are also being studied for monitoring and treating breast cancer. However, these do not appear to be as promising as the new technique, according to the study authors.

The authors conclude that the new findings could help medical professionals make timely changes to more effective treatments and customize breast cancer treatment to individual patients while also avoiding side effects.

The technology is expected to come to market in the next three to five years after a larger-scale clinical trial.

The study is published in the journal Radiology. JB

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