Radioactive 'tracer' finds breast cancers


Injecting women with a safe radioactive tracer that makes breast cancers "light up" when scanned could prevent many unnecessary breast biopsies, University of California researchers suggest.

"With this test, if you have a suspicious finding on mammography or feel a lump in the breast, we can tell with greater than 90 percent accuracy whether or not it's cancer," Dr. Iraj Khalkhali reported in Chicago yesterday at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

While mammography can detect a lump in the breast, a biopsy typically must be performed on the lump to determine whether it is cancerous. The new procedure is designed to prevent unnecessary biopsies of non-cancerous lumps, which can cause some disfigurement and contribute significantly to health-care costs, according to Dr. Khalkhali.

The procedure, called scintimammography, involves injecting women with a radioactive "tracer" that is commonly used to diagnose heart disease. Images of the breast are then taken with a scintillation camera, a nuclear-medicine camera used in many U.S. hospitals.

In a study of 600 women, the procedure correctly identified breast cancers in 90 percent of cases, said Dr. Khalkhali, who is chief of breast imaging at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. "There is no significant risk or discomfort to the patient," the California researcher said. "Compression of the breast is not required, and the radiation risk is minuscule."

Scintimammography, which is not yet approved for widespread use in the United States, costs about $600, while surgical biopsy costs about $3,000, Dr. Khalkhali said. If use of scintimammography becomes widespread, it could eliminate the need for about half of the biopsies currently performed, he added.

In another presentation at the radiology meeting, two studies showed that women ages 40 to 49 should have yearly screening mammograms, as the breast X-rays could improve survival in that age group by 30 percent.

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