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Mar 9, 2010 12:03 PM by Bea Karnes

Former rocket scientist applies research breast cancer

What does a rocket motor have to do with breast cancer?

Two Utah researchers have found a unique connection that may change the way surgeons remove tumors, not only in breast cancer, but other cancers as well.

Dr. Time Doyle, at Utah State University, and Dr. Leigh Neumayer, at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, got the idea while scanning rocket motor fuel.

When Doyle left ATK Thiokol about two years ago and joined Utah State University, he came up with a theory.

Engineers already use ultrasound to search out tiny, undetected cracks in solid rocket fuel and rocket motors, so could modifying that same technology help surgeons find and pluck out microscopic breast cancer tumors they can't see?

"We're actually using ultrasound to determine the tissue structure at the microscopic level, and that's exactly what changes when you have cancer," Doyle explains.

Using computerized artificial intelligence, ultrasound waves passing through breast gland ducts could distinguish the actual structural microscopic cancer cells the surgeon can't see but needs to remove.

He would know when he's got it all.

"It will give them a red light/green light type of indication. That way the surgeon will know when to stop removing tissue," Doyle says.

This could happen in real time, while the surgery is underway, eliminating the need to bring the patient back weeks later for a second operation after pathologists have evaluated the tissue.

Currently, second or third surgeries are not unusual with patients like Stacey Oliver.

"They called me a week later and said they would have to go back in," Oliver recalls. "The tumor board had looked at my case and felt like surgeons needed to get a little bit more of those margins out."

But with the ultrasound technique, patients wouldn't need to come back because the tissue would have already been taken out -- and only that which needed to be removed.

"Right now, a lot of doctors, in order to get that clear margin, will take out extra tissue. So, the collateral damage for the patient is she loses a large chunk of breast tissue that maybe was never going to cause her a problem," Neumayer says.

Within a year, Neumayer will begin testing the ultrasound on specimens removed from patients.

If it works, surgeons could begin human clinical trials within three years.

Down the road a pen-like device might even be developed that could instantly identify, not only breast cancer, but other microscopic villains as well.

 

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