Diagnosing Cancer with a Pill

Dealing with breast cancer is no easy feat — nor is diagnosing it.

When she had a mammogram at age 36, Dr. Carolyn C. Thompson, a Nashville-based gynecologist, received normal results. Then, six weeks later, she was performing a self-exam when she found a mass. Thompson went for an ultrasound, had an excisional biopsy and lumpectomy to detect her tumor — and with her diagnosis confirmed, underwent radiation therapy and other treatments.

Thompson’s oncologist said she would only see a 2 to 3 percent increase in her five-year survival rate with the addition of chemotherapy, so she declined.

“Apparently, I chose well, since I am still around,” said Thompson, now 49.

Are Mammograms Enough?
“Unfortunately, breast cancer does often go undetected by exam or mammogram,” Thompson said. Mammograms miss 10 to 15 percent of cancers, she added.

Current detection methods such as mammograms can also identify lumps but not pinpoint those that are cancerous. Biopsies, which evaluate tissue from lumps, are not always conclusive. Sometimes doctors use MRI and other technology to identify hard-to-detect tumors.

Thompson noted there are many false-positive mammograms, but a breast cancer diagnosis is made based upon looking at cells under a microscope by a pathologist. It still doesn’t change the fact that many women have to undergo a painful biopsy, which is the only way to know if a lump is benign.

New Breast Cancer Detection Method?
Research being presented this week at the American Chemical Society’s annual meeting highlights a pill that could help cancerous tumors "light up" for better detection.

"This is completely needle-free and radiation-free ... and could lead to a 'more accurate diagnosis.'"

Dr. Greg Thurber, who led the research on mice, said he developed it because many women experience false-positive mammography readings, and undergo unnecessary follow-up testing and treatment.

"We are focusing on developing more accurate tests to better distinguish the woman who needs treatment versus the women who are not at risk," he told LifeZette.

His method would allow a patient to take a pill containing a fluorescent molecule that binds to tumors, and a physician could detect the presence or absence of this molecule in a suspicious lump by shining light through the surface of the skin. When paired with an ultrasound, it would give the doctor information on the lump as well as the presence or absence of tumor-associated molecules.

"This is completely needle-free and radiation-free," Thurber said, adding it could lead to a "more accurate diagnosis."

He said the method may be especially useful in women with dense breast tissue, which can make detection even more difficult. This method could be performed with mammography to provide supplemental information during a routine screen.

While Thurber’s method could be years away from being used in humans, he said the targeting molecule in the compound is from a class of agents that have already gone through clinical trials with no major side effects. Similarly, the fluorescent dye in it has already been used in humans in other clinical trials. Though testing the combination is necessary, Thurber said the lack of problems from the individual agents is "promising."

Dr. Sarah Cate, an assistant professor of surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, noted that the method as is only detects cancers at 1 to 2 centimeters deep, which could limit the number of people who may benefit from it.

Last Modified: March 15, 2016, 10:32 am

This website uses cookies.