Breast cameras, 3-D glasses may improve exams

Published: Tuesday, July 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 1, 2008 at 12:08 a.m.

WASHINGTON — Remember peeking through a View-Master? Scientists are using the same concept behind the classic kids’ toy to try to see mammograms in 3-D.

The goal: A better way to check for breast cancer in women with breasts too dense for today’s mammograms to give a clear picture.

Radiologists donning 3-D glasses isn’t the only potential aid. The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., is testing a new kind of breast camera that might challenge the images of those far pricier MRI exams now reserved for the most high-risk women, but at a fraction of the price.

Both technologies still are experimental. But the research is being watched closely because the need is so great: Half of women younger than 50 and a third of women over 50 are estimated to have dense breasts.

In addition to a harder time viewing any brewing tumors, women with dense breasts have a higher risk of getting breast cancer, too.

Only a mammogram can tell if your breasts are made up more of dense or easier-to-examine fatty tissue. But if a doctor warns that you have dense breasts, there’s little good advice on how to get a better cancer check today.

“It’s a major issue in the field now, more and more, how to address the imaging needs of women with significant breast density,” says American Cancer Society screening specialist Robert Smith.

But, “we can do better than we’re doing,” predicts Dr. Mary S. Newell, assistant breast-imaging chief at Emory University in Atlanta, who is testing the 3-D approach.

Mammograms are X-ray exams that hunt denser spots in normal breast tissue, shadows that might signal a tumor. Regular mammograms starting at age 40 help reduce deaths from breast cancer by finding tumors when they’re more treatable.

They’re far from perfect, however, and dense breasts may be the X-rays’ biggest hurdle.

Some doctors already give women with dense breasts an ultrasound exam in addition to a mammogram. A handful of studies conclude ultrasound improves cancer detection but it remains controversial.

Enter the new technologies:

“Stereo mammograms” allow radiologists to see X-ray images in 3-D, so that a small spot on the bottom might not be hidden by normal tissue laying over it.

We have depth perception because each eye gets a slightly different view, allowing your brain to construct a 3-D view when it overlays the two, explains Dr. Newell at Emory. That’s the concept behind stereoscopes, gadgets that help people see pictures in 3-D.

The Mayo Clinic’s so-called molecular breast imaging, or MBI, detects how tumorous tissue acts instead of how it looks.

Doctors inject women with a drug known as a radioactive tracer. It tends to briefly collect in breast tumors, lighting up for viewing when Mayo switches on a small gamma camera.

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