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Women’s Health: Ultrasound test aids breast cancer diagnosis

Technique that measures tissue stiffness could someday help women avoid a biopsy

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A modified ultrasound test that measures the stiffness of breast tissue is showing promise as a way to distinguish benign breast lumps from dangerous malignant tumours that could spread to other parts of the body.

Currently, the only way to definitively tell benign from malignant tumours is through a biopsy, which involves the removal of tissue through a needle or surgery.

The new technique – called ultrasound elastography – relies on the fact cancerous tissue is stiffer than normal tissue. To measure this, doctors send sound waves through the skin to measure how much tissue moves when it is pushed.

In a study of the technique, it correctly identified all 17 malignant tumours and 105 of 106 benign tumours.

“If our results can be reproduced in a large, multicentre trial, this technique could significantly reduce the number of breast biopsies required,” says Dr. Richard Barr, the principal study investigator and a professor of radiology at the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine in Rootstown, Ohio.

Right now, 80 per cent of all breast tumour biopsies performed annually in Canada (140,000 per year) are found to be benign, causing unnecessary anxiety for many women and considerable expense to the health-care system.

Barr and his colleagues are planning a larger study of ultrasound elastography in 2007.