Personal Stories, Research
By: Susan G. komen
Dr. Neb Duric, Detroit, Michigan – Researcher
“I suspected there were things we used in [astronomy] imaging to capture pictures of very distant objects that could be used for diagnostics in early breast cancer.”
“My team and I are searching for a screening method to address these shortcomings, exploring a lower-cost, innovative way of screening for breast cancer called ultrasound tomography (UST), which can have the same low-cost advantage as mammography while delivering the superior imaging expected from more expensive modalities such as MRI.”
Astronomer to breast cancer researcher may sound like quite a leap, but its rewards have been great.
Astronomy has been a passion of mine since I was eight years old. I obtained my Ph.D in Astrophysics from the University of Toronto, and ultimately headed to the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, where I was a professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department for 18 years. Getting a faculty position was a dream job. But through consulting, I found that there was an opportunity to directly help people with their medical needs, and that became a new fascination. My father died of cancer around the same time, so the opportunity became even more appealing, and I decided to make the jump. The change was a risky one – I had to abandon a fully tenured faculty position to start from scratch.
Twelve years ago, the Detroit-based Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Center invited non-medical scientists to a think tank workshop and tasked us to identify and improve a current medical issue. For me, the area for improvement was clear: medical imaging. I suspected there were things we used in [astronomy] imaging to capture pictures of very distant objects that could be used for diagnostics in early breast cancer. So, I began my research in adapting ultrasound imaging for detecting breast cancer.
While mammography can successfully identify breast cancer in many women, it is inefficient for women with dense breasts, who are at increased risk for developing breast cancer. In these women, the risk of false positive and false negative results is high. Alternative screening methods, such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is about 80 percent effective in dense breasts, compared to mammography’s 50 percent. But, the scan is slow and expensive and because of the design of the machine – the patient must lie on a narrow table, which slides into a large tunnel-shaped scanner – the procedure can be uncomfortable for some women.
My team and I have been searching for a screening method to address these shortcomings, exploring a lower-cost, innovative way of screening for breast cancer called ultrasound tomography (UST), which can have the same low-cost advantage as mammography while delivering the superior imaging expected from more expensive modalities such as MRI.
UST uses high frequency sound waves to measure differences in breast tissue stiffness and generate images of the breast which can then be re-constructed into a 3-dimensional image, providing a much more complete picture of the breast. Additionally, the procedure requires no compression – instead, the breast is simply submerged in water, which is much more comfortable for the patient.
In 2007, with a 2-year, $300,000 grant from Komen, I set out to study the effectiveness of using UST to measure breast density. Together with my student, Carri Glide-Hurst and colleague Peter Littrup, we collected and analyzed nearly 300 patient images from UST and were able to show that the denser the breast, the faster the sound waves travel through the tissue. Taking this a step further in a small clinical study, also supported by Komen, our research team was able to demonstrate that UST could successfully image dense breasts.
Our next step was to focus on the software needed to optimize the detection of breast cancer with UST. We were so grateful for another Komen-supported grant in 2010 (Belk EDGE: A Komen Grant for Early Detection and General Education), which allowed us to begin to perfect the statistical methods used to identify regions that could potentially be cancer from images generated by UST. After analyzing hundreds of UST images from patients, our team proved that the technology was able to correctly identify cancer in 90 percent of all cases, regardless of breast density, and estimated that up to 30 percent of unnecessary biopsies could be avoided by using UST. These efforts have led to the commercialization of the technology, called SoftVue*, for which I and my collaborators have requested FDA clearance for its use as a diagnostic device for breast imaging.
Yes, leaving astronomy was a definite risk. But I felt so strongly about the opportunity to help people directly that it was a risk I had to take, and a risk that, thanks to the support from Susan G. Komen, could have a real impact on breast cancer morbidity and mortality.
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