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Pathways to Discovery: Summer 2013

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New MRI Technique to Measure Breast Density May Help Assess Cancer Risk

Breast density, or the amount of tissue in the breast, is one of the strongest known risk factors for breast cancer. Imaging experts at the University of Chicago Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center (UCCCC) have developed an innovative approach to measure breast density using high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This imaging tool may allow physicians to assess breast cancer risk more accurately.

Measuring Breast Density
Mammogram X-rays do not penetrate dense tissues as effectively as fat tissue. Fat tissue appears as a dark area on a mammogram, whereas breast tissue appears as a solid white area. Cancer appears as white, too, making it very difficult to interpret mammograms and detect tumors in women with dense breasts.

Because of its high sensitivity, MRI has been increasingly relied upon as an alternative breast imaging tool. Gregory Karczmar, PhD, professor of radiology and medical physics, and director of the Florsheim Magnetic Resonance Imaging Spectroscopy Laboratory, and Gillian Newstead, MD, professor emeritus of radiology, are leading a study* to test whether a spectroscopic method of MRI developed at the UCCCC, called high spectral and spatial resolution (HiSS) MRI, can more accurately measure breast density.

HiSS MRI provides more precise measurements of the volume of water and fat in tissues than conventional MRI. The researchers plan to use HiSS MRI to measure breast density, as well as changes in density due to tamoxifen therapy, a drug used to prevent and treat breast cancer. The research is an extension of the work initiated as part of the University of Chicago Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) in Breast Cancer.

Future Applications
The new technique will be compared to conventional imaging methods. Once validated, the technique could potentially be used to evaluate a woman’s risk for breast cancer and guide the management of both risk and preventive treatment. HiSS MRI could also be used, instead of mammography, to follow high-risk patients and reduce repeated exposure to radiation.

“It’s much easier to take care of cancer before it even begins to develop, as opposed to later on when it’s more serious,” Dr. Karczmar said. “The easiest way to do that is to measure risk accurately.”

He also pointed out that screening and diagnostic tools need to be both sensitive and specific. The more reliable the method, the less likely false-positive results will occur. “We have to make sure we know which breast abnormalities are dangerous, and which are not,” said Dr. Karczmar.

HiSS MRI also holds potential for facilitating more efficient and economical clinical trials for testing new therapeutic agents. Researchers are hopeful that the technique could one day predict an individual patient’s response to therapy, allowing for more personalized treatment.

*This project is being supported by research grant CA167785 from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health, and was supported in its initial stages by the University of Chicago Specialized Program of Research Excellence in Breast Cancer grant CA125183.