Novel Scanner Technique Can Potentially Replace Mammograms for Breast Cancer Detection


Researchers have developed a laser-sonic scanner with the ability to detect tumors in as little as 15 seconds.

A new laser-sonic scanner technique may help women avoid the discomfort of traditional mammography procedures by offering an alternative, more efficient way to screen for breast cancer, according to a recent study.

Although mammograms are effective in detecting breast cancer and reducing deaths from the disease, many women avoid having their mammograms taken as often as they should due to the pain they experience during the procedure.

According to researchers from the California Institute of Technology, they have developed a laser-sonic scanner that can find tumors in as little as 15 seconds. The scanning system, known as photoacoustic computed tomography (PACT), works by shining a near-infrared laser pulse into the breast tissue and providing a clear view of the breast’s internal structures in a process that is similar to ultrasound imaging.

Additionally, PACT can provide soft-tissue contrast with much more detail than mammograms, the researchers noted. Particularly useful for detecting cancer, PACT can construct images that primarily show the blood vessels present in the tissue being scanned. Many tumors grow their own blood vessels, surrounding themselves with dense networks of vascular tissue that allows the tumors to grow quickly, the researchers noted.

In a recent pilot study, the researchers scanned the breasts of 8 women using PACT and correctly identified 8 of the 9 breast tumors that were present.

Apart from its precision, the technology can also be performed quickly, which gives it an advantage over other imaging techniques. The scan only takes 15 seconds, which allows the patient to easily hold their breath while being scanned to develop a clearer image.

“This is the only single-breath-hold technology that gives us high-contrast, high-resolution, 3-D images of the entire breast,” study author Lihong Wang, PhD, Caltech’s Bren Professor of Medical Engineering and Electrical Engineering, said in a press release.

During the PACT scan, the patient lies face down on the table and has each breast placed in a recess containing ultrasonic sensors and the laser for scanning.

Additionally, PACT is completely safe for the patient compared with other imaging scans, such as magnetic resonance imaging.

“Our goal is to build a dream machine for breast screening, diagnosis, monitoring, and prognosis without any harm to the patient,” Dr Wang said in the press release. “We want it to be fast, painless, safe, and inexpensive.”

According to the researchers, future studies may focus on using PACT for imaging other parts of the body as well.


Laser-sonic Scanner Aims to Replace Mammograms for Finding Breast Cancer [news release]. Caltech’s website. Accessed June 19, 2018.

Lin L, Hu P, Shi J, et al. Single-breath-hold photoacoustic computed tomography of the breast. Nature Communications. 2018. Doi: 10.1038/s41467-018-04576-z.

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