This is not your grandma’s mammogram

This is not your grandma’s mammogram

Advances in mammography over the past 30 years mean a better outlook for breast cancer patients
January 27, 2014

Decades before film photography was nudged out of use by digital cameras, Martin Yaffe and his team of researchers at Sunnybrook Research Institute in Toronto were developing digital mammography technology to produce a more accurate and efficient breast cancer detection tool than traditional screen-film mammography. The prognosis for women afflicted with breast cancer — the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women in Canada — is often better when the disease is caught early. But the screen-film mammography that was in conventional use before 2005 was not sensitive enough to detect all breast cancers in all patients. For example, women with dense breast tissue could have small cancers that would go unnoticed in these screenings.

Much like digital photography, digital mammography produces high-resolution images that can be manipulated and analyzed, which can help doctors identify breast cancers earlier or spot malignant tumours that would otherwise go undetected. Thanks in part to the work of Yaffe and his team, more than 80 percent of mammograms received by Canadian women today are digital.

The Sunnybrook team is now focused on ushering in the next generation of early breast cancer diagnosis with digital breast tomosynthesis. This 3-D mammography technology produces image slices of breast tissue, much like a CT scan. “With the ability to see each layer of tissue,” says Yaffe, “doctors and researchers can see cancers hidden by surrounding tissue.” Yaffe and his team will soon launch a clinical trial to prove that tomosynthesis will produce more accurate diagnoses than the current digital mammography.

To tie all this groundbreaking work together, Yaffe has used CFI funding to build a database of breast cancer information called the biomatrix. For more than five years, it has housed everything from images of mammograms to breast tissue samples and drug therapy history of patients old and new. Such a collection of information is crucial to helping researchers correlate physical characteristics in images and tissue sample analyses to different cancers. “This database has to be the new direction for both health-care delivery and medical research,” says Yaffe. “There’s such a wealth of information about a patient’s journey from diagnosis to treatment. We want to use this information to pinpoint biomarkers to ensure that treatment matches the disease, providing more appropriate and successful treatment for patients.” This has implications in health and health economics, reducing the time and money spent treating patients.

The database model is now being applied to other cancers, such as ovarian and prostate cancer, and has the potential of being used in other disciplines. There is also the possibility of working with industry in drug development, using information in the biomatrix to determine which cancers respond best to certain drugs. In the end, improving early diagnosis and proper treatment will give breast cancer patients enhanced care, less stress and a better chance at health.

Image courtesy of Barco