URBANA — When something suspicious turns up on a standard mammogram, an ultrasound can be used to provide a few more clues about how dangerous it might be.
But for many women, the next step is a needle biopsy. That's because neither a mammogram nor current ultrasound technology can detect both the stiffness of the tissue — an early indicator of malignancy — along with how it moves after it's been compressed, says Michael Insana, head of the University of Illinois Department of Bioengineering.
Insana is co-principal investigator of the combined UI and Mayo Clinic research team that has been awarded a $2.2 million, five-year grant from the National Cancer Institute to study the role of tissue elasticity in breast cancer diagnosis.
He and his colleagues have developed a new technique called SAVE (Sub-Hertz Analysis of Viscoelasticity) and they're aiming to develop a viable clinical tool during the grant period.
Insana said there is ultrasound technology that can measure tissue stiffness, but the UI/Mayo Clinic technology is unique because it also provides another vital clue for malignancy by measuring the flow under slight compression.
"We're creating these indicators of stiffness," Insana said. "Not only stiffness, but if you press on it, and it continues to move. We're looking at the stiffness and by pressing and moving, that tells us something that is very diagnostic."
The advantage to patients: Ultrasound could be used to regularly track a suspicious breast mass, rather than going right to an invasive biopsy, Insana said.
"We were able to get a 100 percent accurate diagnosis on 21 patients," he said.
Ultrasound, a painless test that uses sound waves to outline part of the body, has become a valuable tool to accompany mammography because it's a less expensive and more widely available option than other diagnostics, such as MRI, according to the American Cancer Society.
There were 211,731 women diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Insana said preliminary studies will be expanded with a larger study involving 400 patients at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
If results are promising, he said he could attempt to license the technology, secure a patent and get it to market possibly even before the end of the five-year period.
"But it depends on how promising it looks," he said.
The UI and Mayo Clinic launched a research alliance in 2010, with areas of cooperation to include basic, translational and clinical research, bioengineering (especially for point-of-care diagnostics) and development of tools and methods in computational biology and medicine.