Female cancers and the alternative mammogram 

The Good Life Letter

Sunday 25th September 2011

  • The alternative to the much-hated mammogram could be here soon
  • Breast cancer and ovarian cancer could be detected earlier
  • Technology that lights up cancer cells for easier removal

Why are the tests for discovering female cancers like something from the Dark Ages?

Cervical and breast cancers are feared by every woman in the UK, and rightly so, as they among the most common malignancies.

The problem is that the tests for them are akin to medieval torture.

Detecting cervical cancer relies on a Pap smear test, which is invasive, undignified and often painful.

Breast cancer, which can also affect males, is detected through mammography, where the breast tissue is squeezed between metal plates and subjected to X-ray emissions - again hardly designed to make anyone feel comfortable.

In this day and age of scientific breakthrough surely someone must have come up with something better?

As for us chaps we only have to undergo the annual blood test to see if we are suffering from our most common sex-specific neoplasm - that of the prostate. Our medics can determine the level of risk by identifying the levels of Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) present before deciding on any invasive biopsy.

It kind of makes you believe that the folk doing most development work in this field must be men, and therefore they look to protect their own first.

There are developments coming through to improve the lot of the fairer sex, but from completely unexpected sources.

Two major lines of diagnostic change are wholly attributable to developments made in our defence (or more accurately war) industry.

Could it be true that an industry which tries to make TAKING life more effective could be responsible for helping to SAVE thousands of people every year?

The first consideration has already had many false dawns though.

This relates to thermographic detection systems, where the increased growth and activity generated by cancer cells causes a localised increase in temperature which can be seen on a thermal imaging device.

A few years ago much credibility was given to this approach, and indeed several commercial organisations set up in gyms and health centres offering a 'better way' to detect cancers...at around £150 a go.

This approach was found to have many pitfalls and led to inaccurate detection which put more lives at risk.

In the end, a seminal research paper by Pennsylvania State University concluded that "the association between skin temperature and breast cancer is too weak to be useful, given the need to detect small tumours and the statistics of breast cancer".

However, the same team have recently re-evaluated the technology available and concluded that "infrared imaging has experienced great progress in recent years, which is a result of military research in night vision" and that as a result "several groups in the U.S., Canada, and Japan are experimenting with advanced thermographic systems for detection of breast cancer".

The hope is that these researchers can use the latest innovations and also apply our understanding about how cancers grow, change and develop to iron out the previous problems.

The second piece of news is all about radio waves

In a second development other scientists are using radio waves to help detect cancerous lumps in breast tissue, and this one is moving ahead with full hospital trials this year.

A team from Bristol University, just down the road, have developed a procedure which can detect cancer in women much younger than those currently being tested from the age of 50 onwards.

This is because X-rays cannot accurately penetrate the firmer tissue of younger women's breasts, whereas radio waves can, meaning an earlier detection of cases and significantly improved survival rates.

From early results of the trials both doctors and patients are impressed with the clarity and ease of understanding of the 3D images produced from these scans which make it easier to see any changes in the tissue.

The NHS should be keen on it too, as the machines doing this work cost about an eighth of the current set up, a mere £50,000 compared with the £400,000 for a mammogram machine.

So, all hope of an accurate and easy-to-use system to detect breast cancer is not too far away, and that is good news for everyone, and their mums, daughters, friends and partners.

Technological advances do not always rely on our war machines though; sometimes the scientists make major breakthroughs anyway!

The good news keeps on coming

The other heartening piece of news this week was about how surgeons are using a special folic acid to make cancer cells glow, and therefore make it easier to remove all parts of a tumour.

Cancer cells are rapidly dividing all the time, which is how a tumour develops and grows, and the act of cell division requires a lot of folic acid to be available.

So, the research team has found that by treating the folate with a special dye the hungry cancer cells concentrate it and they become distinct from any surrounding tissue, and therefore easier to remove.

By not allowing the dangerous cells to hide, doctors say that they can remove upto 5 times more of them than they can under normal conditions, and therefore the risks of reoccurrence are hugely reduced.

If we are going to be able to find cancers easier, and kill them more effectively then we might just be beginning to win the battle - but, maybe not the war just yet.

That just makes it ironic that much of the development in our health technology relies on the heavily funded war machines; if only the reverse was true.

Yours as always,





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