British scientists have developed a revolutionary breast-screening system that uses anti-landmine technology to detect cancer in seconds.
The radio-wave scanner is safer, cheaper and less painful than traditional mammogram X-rays, and unlike the current system, can be used on women of all ages.
Mammogram X-rays can pose a risk to women under 50 because of the regular exposure to ionizing radiation from an early age. It is also harder to detect tumours in younger women using X-rays because they have denser breast cancer tissue.
The new radio-wave technology eliminates the radiation risk and makes it easier to find problems in tissue, regardless of density.
Mammograms are notoriously uncomfortable for women as they involve the breast being squeezed between two plates.
In contrast, the new system is pain-free. Patients are required to lie face down on a bench with a gap at breast level. The breast then nestles into a ceramic cup-shaped scanner, which transmits radio waves through the breast, relaying signals to a computer via 60 antennae.
The signals distinguish between normal breast tissue and tumours by picking up on the collections of blood and water present in tumours. The information is displayed as a 3D image with tumours highlighted in red.
The technology is based on a landmine-detection project that was able to locate non-metallic explosives in soil.
A pilot study examined 200 women who had already been diagnosed with breast cancer, using the new system to double-check them. In four out of five cases, the tumour was successfully spotted. Clinicians expect this rate to increase to 90%.
Dr Mike Shere, a breast specialist from Southmead Hospital, said: "We are very excited about the potential of this completely new method of breast imaging.
"It has none of the disadvantages of the current methods - ultrasound, mammography and MRI. It is quick, safe, comfortable and cheap, and is already producing good images with high sensitivity. This technology uses radio waves, which are almost exactly the same as mobile phone frequency - and less energy. It is completely safe, unlike mammography, where there is an increasing cancer risk when women have more X-rays.
"And it's much more comfortable for women, some of whom may be deterred from screening at present because they find it painful."
The new radar system was developed by a team at Bristol University. Specialists hope the system, called Maria, will be in widespread use within five years in GPs' surgeries and clinics.
He added: "Mammography is really reaching the limits of what it can achieve. Although MRI scanning is the most sensitive tool, it's hideously expensive and takes a long time.
"We need this new technology to make a leap forward."
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