New technique to detect early signs of breast cancer

Wednesday 21st September 2022 07:31 EDT

Researchers now anticipate a new approach from mice to better human breast imaging. A group of scientists devised a two-pronged technique for measuring breast density in mice, resulting in improved detection of changes in breast tissue, including early symptoms of cancer. They believe this approach may also aid in disease prognosis because density can be linked to specific patterns of mammary gland growth, including signals of cancer development.

Priscilla A. Furth, MD, professor of oncology and medicine at Georgetown Lombardi and corresponding author of the study, said, “Having a means to accurately assess mammary gland density in mice, just as is done clinically for women using mammograms, is an important research advance. This method has the benefit of being applicable across all ages of mice and mammary gland shapes, unlike some methods used in earlier studies.”

Developed by Georgetown alum Brendan Rooney while working as an undergraduate in Furth’s lab, the innovative analytic computer program allowed for the sorting of mammary gland tissue to one of two imaging assessments.

"The idea for the analytic program came from routine visual observations of tissue samples and the challenges inherent in observing differences in breast tissue with just a microscope. We found that visual human observations are important but having another read on abnormalities from optimal imaging programs added validity and rigour to our assessments," says Rooney, the lead author of the study. "Not only does our program result in a high degree of diagnostic accuracy, but it is also freely available and easy to use.”

Rooney initially looked at younger mouse glands and found that a program that removed background ‘noise’ in those images helped boost the detection of abnormalities in what are typically rounder, more lobular tissues. However, as aging occurs and the chances of developing cancer increase, lobules diminish and ridges become more apparent, just as falling autumn leaves expose tree branches. The mammary ridges represent ducts that carry milk and other fluids. When the de-noising technique was applied to the images from the older mice, it was found to be less reliable in detecting ridges. Therefore Rooney and the team turned to a different imaging program, which has primarily been used to detect blood vessel changes in the eye's retina.

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