Scan that can predict how well chemo will work

A new scan developed to help in the treatment of breast cancer patients has shown promising results

A new scan could aid breast cancer treatment
Alice Jaffe

A high-tech scan that takes just five seconds to perform can tell if chemotherapy is working in patients with breast cancer.

The scan, which involves waving a hand-held probe resembling a shower head over the tumour site, can detect tiny changes that indicate whether it is responding to chemo drugs after just one round of treatment.

The breakthrough means women showing no early signs of improvement can be switched to other drugs or treatments, sparing them from the unnecessary and toxic side-effects of chemotherapy.

Currently, most patients undergoing chemo have to endure several weeks or months of treatment - often with debilitating side-effects, such as nausea, hair loss and extreme fatigue - before they find out whether their tumour has shrunk.

The new technique could potentially slash that time to a matter of hours, allowing doctors to try other chemotherapy combinations or carry out surgery sooner in a bid to stop the cancer from spreading.

At present, there can be a wait of weeks or months to see if the drugs are working. Up to 55,000 women a year in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer, with one in seven women developing it in their lifetime.

Chemotherapy is often given before surgery to shrink tumours and make them easier to remove, as well as reduce the chances of a patient needing a mastectomy. But it is also routinely used after surgery to 'mop up' any lingering cancer cells.

Doctors currently track the success of chemotherapy using a combination of blood tests, X-rays and CT scans (a kind of 3D X-ray). But these can be time-consuming, and changes in tumour size or structure are not always obvious.

The new five-second scan is not only rapid but highly detailed. As the probe is passed over the breast, it beams sound waves and infrared light into the tissue.

Tiny sensors in the probe instantly measure the rate at which both sound and light are reflected - producing an image that reveals tiny changes in the tumour.

Any disruption to these reflections suggest the cancer is still active. For example, the readings can show whether the tiny blood vessels that spring up around a tumour (in order to keep it supplied with the oxygen it needs to grow) are disappearing, or growing even more rapidly, after just one cycle of chemotherapy.

Scientists who developed the scan at Washington University in St Louis and Barnes-Jewish Hospital, both in the United States, tested it on 38 women with breast cancer.

They had the scan before and after three bouts of chemotherapy. The results, published recently in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, showed it was highly accurate in predicting which tumours would respond well to chemo.

Now the same team are setting up a project to fit the technology into existing hospital ultrasound machines so they can produce more detailed tumour scans.

The technology can also be used for head and neck cancers. The new scan seems "very promising in detecting patients that are not responding to chemotherapy, meaning they can have surgery sooner", says Jayant Vaidya, a professor of surgery and oncology at University College London, but "further trials are needed".

© Daily Mail

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access