A novel laser engineered to home in on tiny tumors may someday enhance early detection of cancers in breast, skin, and other tissues, researchers report. Using a high-frequency laser to probe tissue biopsies from mice, a team of scientists at Stanford, the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland, and the University of California-Davis has developed an experimental technology that ultimately may bring higher resolution and fewer risks than mammography and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Their report appeared in a recent issue of Applied Physics Letters.
"If there's a safer, newer way of imaging that could combine the current technologies, it would be very promising for studying cancerous tissues," says Stanford research associate Seongsin Kim, who holds a doctorate in electrical engineering. "Considering research efforts have increased recently, I would expect the technology to come to market within the next 5 years."
Conventional imaging technologies for detecting breast tumors include mammography and MRI, but neither of these techniques is ideal. Mammograms often miss smaller tumors and can expose women already at high risk for developing cancer to radiation. Conversely, MRI scans that detect alterations in tissue can produce false-positives, leading to unnecessary biopsies.
In lasers, a higher frequency means smaller tumors can be detected, Kim says. Terahertz lasers are energetic enough to resolve features five times smaller than MRI and 50 times smaller than mammography. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate screening to detect cancerous tumorswhile they are still smallcould prevent 16% of deaths associated with breast cancer in women over age 40.
This terahertz technology "might fill a gap in imaging breast tissue for women who are at highest risk."says Allison Kurian, MD, an instructor in the Division of Oncology who conducts clinical research in hereditary breast cancer through the Stanford Cancer Genetics Clinic.