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Volume 2 Published - 14:00 UTC    08:00 EST    28-January-2001      
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Back To Vidyya New Device May Help Decrease Unnecessary Breast Biopsies

Human Tests Expected To Start This Spring

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 computer screen.

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.

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Editor: Susan K. Boyer, RN
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