The positive impact of early detection on cancer mortality is one victory in the war on cancer, yet there is enormous room for improvement. Oftentimes, screening results leave doctors and patients uncertain about what to do next. For some cancers, such as ovarian, lung, and pancreatic, there is no effective screening-the disease is typically found in an advanced stage, when chances of a cure are remote.
UCCCC researchers are rising to the challenge of developing improved diagnostic tests that detect cancer during its early stages. The promise of early detection is that it will identify cancer in its most curable state, decreasing mortality, and reducing costs of treatment. Early detection may also result in less-intensive therapy and less time spent recovering. The focus of our early detection research is on increasing the quality of cancer screening tests. This does not necessarily mean more screening for our patients, but rather, more effective tests that are less invasive.
For cancer patients, the chances of surviving the disease increase significantly when the cancer is confined to the organ of origin. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 5-year-survival rates for breast and prostate cancer patients with localized, early stage disease are above 95%. Also, if colorectal cancer is diagnosed and treated early, the 5-year-survival rate is around 90%.
Our researchers are making major contributions to screening and diagnosis — discovering new approaches to detection and improving computer technologies that aid radiologists in analyzing images.
Earlier this year, genomic experimentalists at the Institute for Genomics and Systems Biology discovered a protein that will help physicians predict which cases of early, estrogen-positive breast cancer are most likely to metastasize and cause death. The discovery was made by integrating data from multiple screening technologies and examining thousands of molecular interactions. It represented the successful use of an integrated, systems-level approach to cancer research.
New imaging technologies offer another powerful tool for early detection. Our physicians are developing new applications for 64-slice computed tomography (CT), which creates video-like images of organs that can be rotated and studied from all angles. Beyond diagnosis, they are using these dynamic, 3D images to improve every phase of cancer treatment, from planning, to execution, and follow-up.
Computer-aided diagnosis, pioneered at UChicago, is being taken to new levels of precision by researchers in our medical physics program. In 2008, for example, they unveiled a computer program that allows physicians to use enhanced magnetic resonance (MR) imaging scans, rather than a biopsy, to determine whether a common breast lesion (ductal carcinoma in situ) is invasive. Our researchers continue to excel in the development and evaluation of new imaging technologies for computer-aided diagnosis.