For women at risk for breast cancer, the advice is simple: Get screened to catch the disease early.
But for thousands of women, exams return a false positive, subjecting them to further testing, stress and even cancer treatments they don't need. A 2011 study found more than half of women who had annual exams for 10 years experienced at least one false positive.
Now, researchers at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah are working on a way to prevent false positives with improvements to a technique called sodium MRI, which makes images up to five times clearer than current technology.
They've built a device, now in the testing stages, to work with an MRI machine. It works by measuring sodium in the tissue; higher concentrations point to a malignant tumor.
While X-ray mammograms are the primary way women are screened for breast cancer, doctors are increasingly recommending MRIs for women in high-risk groups, such as those who are found to have a gene that makes breast cancer significantly more likely.
"A breast MRI is very sensitive," said Neal Bangerter, an MRI physicist and senior author on a study detailing the method, published in September in the journal Magnetic Resonance in Medicine. "There are tons of false positives. We're catching stuff that isn't a problem."
A breast MRI creates an image by measuring hydrogen and sodium. Detecting one of those elements tends to interfere with the other, though, resulting in cloudy images.
"It's tough to build a good, sensitive coil that does a nice job on the hydrogen side and a nice job on the sodium side," said Bangerter. The Utah team's breakthrough was in finding the right balance, resulting in a technique that returns high-quality images in 20 minutes.
Along with screening for cancer, the device can also be used after diagnosis to follow how a tumor is responding to treatment.
"One of the big hopes for this technology is we'll be able to assess a tumor's response to therapy," Bangerter said.
The group, which also includes Rock Hadley and Joshua Kaggie from the University of Utah, just got approval to start studying the device with patients. It's not clear when it will come to market.
Bruce Daniel, a professor of radiology at Stanford University, called the technique a "major advance" in a statement provided by BYU.
Bangerter "and his group have invented a way to dramatically boost the sodium signal from the breast, enabling much better, higher resolution sodium MRI images to be obtained. This should open the door to new avenues of research into breast cancer."
Breast cancer awareness month in Utah
During October's Breast Cancer Awareness Month observations, the American Cancer Society is urging Utahns to get involved and offers these opportunities.
Join the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk, slated for Saturday, Oct.12. Find walk details here.
Volunteer as a Road to Recovery driver, taking patients to treatment and back home again. Find volunteering details here or sign up by calling 1-800-227-2345
Also, Jordan Valley Medical Center is holding a "Cups for a Cause" 5K run/walk on Saturday, Oct. 5. Participants will begin at Jordan Landing, 7533 Center View Ct., West Jordan, Utah at 8 a.m.