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Friday, 22 March, 2002, 16:19 GMT
'Human hair' breast cancer camera
Breast cancer cells
The device detects pre-cancerous changes
A tiny camera no bigger than a few strands of human hair may help doctors search for early warning signs of breast cancer.

Scientists at Guy's Hospital in London, UK, are developing a technique using a minute fibre optic tube which can pass through the nipple to look for abnormalities in cells.

If proved successful, the researchers suggest the device could be used in the future to identify warning signs in high-risk patients up to 10 years before invasive tumours appear.

Such high-risk patients would include those with a family history of breast cancer or a genetic predisposition to developing the disease.

When we first talked about this technique, the response from some quarters was that it was 'science fiction'

Dr Nicolas Beechey-Newman, Guy's Hospital
Dr Nicolas Beechey-Newman from Guy's Hospital told delegates at the 3rd European Breast Cancer Conference in Barcelona, Spain, that so-called micro-endoscopy had the potential to detect signs of abnormality in cells lining the breast ducts.

This is the area of the breast where cancer first appears.

He said: "When we first talked about this technique, the response from some quarters was that it was 'science fiction'. But we've proved the doubters wrong.

"I would point out that in the long run this won't be a way of diagnosing people with breast cancer because mammograms and ultra-sound scans are already pretty good at that.

"But these are all pretty poor at picking up pre-cancerous changes.

"This is a revolutionary way of detecting these changes in advance."

Hollywood expertise

Breast endoscopy has been tried before, but the endoscopes have been too large.

However, advances in fibre optics have produced endoscopes less than one millimetre across, although the picture quality has been poor.

The team at Guy's worked with endoscope designers in the US, who enlisted ideas from Hollywood film technicians.

Guy's eventually produced a micro-endoscope tailor-made for examining the breast ducts.

The image is projected on to a TV-screen, where surgeons can assess whether pre-cancerous cells are present.

At present, women at Guy's undergoing the procedure need a general anaesthetic, but in the future a local anaesthetic may be all that is required.

The technique has been used on a small number of patients and is being tested on a larger group of 100 women over the next few years.

In one case, the micro-endoscope was used on a patient who was having a prophylactic mastectomy.

European take-up

The team found a lesion close to the nipple that they claim would have almost certainly been missed by pathologists.

It turned out to be a two-millimetre invasive cancer.

Mammograms have selective use
So for this patient, who had made the difficult decision to have her breast removed because of her high cancer risk, it confirmed she would have developed breast cancer in the future.

Dr Beechey-Newman and his colleagues are the first team in Europe to use the micro-endoscope.

However, they expect it will be used as a diagnostic tool in several European hospitals within the next year or two.

A number of US research teams have taken up the technique, including the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, which began the initial work.

The research at Guy's is partly funded by Cancer Research UK.

See also:

19 Mar 02 | Health
Breast screening benefits hailed
15 Mar 02 | Health
Relief over breast drug decision
02 Mar 02 | Health
Breast care cost questioned
01 Dec 01 | Health
Women fail to spot breast cancer
05 Nov 01 | Health
Breast 'most common cancer'
17 Mar 00 | C-D
Breast Cancer
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