LBL, Bay area firm join forces to improve early detection of breast cancer

September 2, 1994

By David Gilbert,

In a development that may lead to earlier diagnosis of breast cancer, LBL has signed a one-year cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with Wang NMR Inc., a small business located in Livermore.

Breast cancer, the most common cancer in women, is second only to lung cancer in terms of mortality. Early detection with x-ray mammography, the current screening technique of choice, is not always successful. In particular, x-ray methods often fail to pick up small tumors in the breast or identify tumors through dense tissue of larger breasts. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI; also known as nuclear magnetic resonance or NMR), has proven to be effective in overcoming these obstacles. However, the ability of MRI to distinguish benign from malignant tumors once they are detected, remains a problem.

The aim of this collaborative endeavor is to develop technology to better zero in on tumors. During an MRI session a patient typically reclines on a table encircled by a large device that delivers a strong magnetic field. The magnet excites the molecules in the tissue to release energy that, with the aid of a computer, is reconstructed into an image that varies in color as a function of the tissue density. The technology now being developed will enable physicians to perform needle biopsies of detected tumors while the patient is being imaged.

Thomas F. Budinger, M.D., head of LBL's Center for Functional Imaging, said of the collaboration, "The sensitivity for detecting tumors by MRI is so great that frequently small tissue abnormalities, which might not be tumors, often appear in the image. If you have a unique detection technique, you also have to have a method for confirming what it is you have really detected. A method that allows for the detection of small tumors and needle biopsy of the suspect tumor while the patient is still in the magnet would be the most significant advance in breast cancer medicine of this decade.

"The technology that combines effective patient care with state-of-the-art instrumentation is exactly where the national labs can make contributions to improving the quality of health care while lowering the financial burden," he said.

In the scope of the agreement, LBL will design the component systems for the MRI mammography and biopsy system while Wang will fabricate the prototypes, including the device for in-magnet biopsy of breast tumors. These prototypes will then be tested in breast tissue phantoms at LBL's Center for Functional Imaging. Mark Roos, faculty scientist in the Center, will lead the effort at LBL.

Wang NMR is a manufacturer of superconducting magnets with experience in the design of special purpose magnets for magnetic resonance, fusion research and other applications.