Faster breast cancer screening on the horizon

Nurse Assisting Patient Undergoing Mammogram

Women who have a mammogram that gives inconclusive results have to return to the hospital to undergo a needle biopsy, where a small sample of the breast tissue is taken and sent for analysis. After an agonising wait for the results, every year 75,000 women in the UK are then given the all clear.

A new application of Spatially Offset Raman Spectroscopy (SORS), a technique developed at our Central Laser Facility, is hoping to cut down on patient anxiety (and costs to the health service) by offering instant results for breast cancer screening. For those unlucky enough to receive a positive diagnosis, a rapid result means treatment can start earlier.

SORS is a technique that allows us to ‘see’ through objects that are not transparent. It is already being used successfully to scan containers of liquid at airports, to ensure that they do not contain liquid explosives – there’s no need to open the container, and the procedure is very quick.

Now SORS is being used in medical research, and in 2012 PhD student Marleen Kerssens showed (in tests on pork) that it can be used to tell whether animal tissue is healthy or cancerous. The next step is to test the technique on human tissue that has been removed from patients (who have consented to its use in medical research), and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council have awarded a grant to the University of Exeter and STFC in partnership with the Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, to fund this ongoing research.

This technique is in the very early stages of development, and it could be a decade or more before it could be used routinely in hospitals. But as Marleen Kerssens says, this “is an exciting field of research and translation of the SORS technique to a clinical setting has the potential to reduce the amount of false positives and therefore reduce patient anxiety”.

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000