Lawrence Livermore nuclear
laboratory scientists are working on a new weapon in the fight
against breast cancer, a probe that uses beams of light to check
suspicious lumps and could reduce unnecessary biopsies.
Lab officials are developing the new device, called Smart Probe,
in partnership with BioLuminate, a San Jose-based start up.
Smart Probe uses a very thin needle--smaller than the kind used
in routine blood tests--to probe suspect lumps. The probe sends
out light which bounces off the tissue, providing measurements of
optical, electrical and chemical properties that are fed back to a
Lab scientists stuck the skinny probe into a slab of steak to
show how the computer monitor hooked up to the device displayed the
different patterns produced by muscle, fat and gristle.
The idea is that doctors can compare the readout from a breast
lump with measurements of cancerous and healthy tissue to determine
whether the lump in question is benign or suspicious.
If it works, the device could have a significant impact in
reducing unnecessary biopsies, its developers say. Testing on
humans is expected to start this spring and the device could be on
the market within three years.
BioLuminate says the probe is expected to achieve the accuracy
of core needle biopsies, or about 85 percent, and approach the
level of surgical biopsies, the most accurate method now available,
which is about 98 percent.
Currently, 1.2 million women a year undergo biopsies, with
between 75 percent and 80 percent of those tests proving benign,
said Dr. Neil Gorrin, assistant chief of surgery at Kaiser
Permanente Medical Center in South San Francisco and a consultant
on the project.
Smart Probe developers say the test could be done in the
doctor's office and would require little, if any, anesthesia.
Having the power to do an optical biopsy the first time a woman
walked into the office to report a lump could "avoid the great
number of biopsies and save women a lot of grief and trouble, and
also decrease the costs of taking care of breast cancer patients
across the nation," Gorrin said. "I see this as a major step, the
first major step in perhaps 20 years toward finding a technology
that can pinpoint whether a tumor is malignant or benign."
At the American Cancer Society, Robert Smith, director of cancer
screening, said anything that can provide a more accurate diagnosis
with less trauma to the patient is "definitely something that we
would hope could be developed."
However, he noted the probe's success will hinge on its
accuracy. "Ultimately, the large studies that they're planning as well as
the additional research that will take place will determine whether
this test will contribute to our ability not only to detect breast
cancer but to avoid doing unnecessary biopsies," he said.
Smart Probe is the latest in a number of medical projects
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is working on in
collaboration with private partners, part of an attempt to find
peaceful applications for technology developed for the lab's key
mission of maintaining the nation's nuclear stockpile. The laser technology that goes into Smart Probe stems from work done on the lab's huge lasers that are used to study the properties of nuclear weapons.