Distinguishing dense tissue from cancerous tumors

May 07, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For the 40 percent of women age 40 and older with heterogeneously dense breast tissue, current mammogram imaging is not able to correctly differentiate breast cancer tumors from their dense tissues. While fatty breast tissues appear dark on a mammogram image, dense tissues appear white — as do tumors.

Sean Knecht, assistant teaching professor in engineering design, was recently awarded a $50,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition to develop a real-time, portable photoacoustic imaging system that can effectively distinguish dense breast tissue from cancerous tumors.

According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 252,710 women in the United States were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017. In the same year, 40,610 U.S. women succumbed to the disease.

A mammogram, or low-dose X-ray, is currently the standard way to image breast tissues. Guidelines suggest women begin receiving annual mammograms starting at 40 years old. Because mammograms can be ineffective at detecting cancerous cells in denser tissues and almost half the women age 40 and older have heterogeneously dense breast tissue, many women must be alternatively screened.

Currently, these additional methods include tomosynthesis, 3-D mammography, MRIs, and automated whole breast screening ultrasounds. But each of these comes with limitations. Knecht is hoping to change that by creating an easy-to-use handheld device that captures optical contrast images via ultrasound waves.

Knecht will use a well-defined wavelength in the near-infrared region and synthetic nanoparticles that absorb at that wavelength to improve the depth of imaging and contrast. The nanoparticles will be targeted to cancer types, meaning they will congregate within and around a cancerous tumor. 

“When we shine in our light...boom! We get an acoustic signal that we can measure that must have come from the tumor and not the dense breast tissue,” Knecht said. “This should improve the contrast of our detection and imaging system significantly.”

By creating a handheld device available at a much lower price than an MRI machine, Knecht aims to make supplemental screening accessible to a much greater population.

“Scientists and engineers have an obligation to do things to improve society. My hope is that this supplemental screening tool can significantly reduce the mortality of breast cancer by helping to catch breast cancer at an earlier stage for those with dense breast tissue so that treatment can begin as soon as it is necessary,” he said. “As the Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition says ‘Finding a cure now, so our daughters won't have to.’ Or in this case, if not a cure, [we are] at least [finding] a tool to bring the cure to them earlier.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 10, 2018