Conventional scans may soon be out-dated
A high-tech system which produces 3D images of the breast may help doctors better to pinpoint the early signs of cancer.
The technique, called full-field digital tomosynthesis (TOMO), may also reduce the number of women who have to be called back for a second scan because their first mammogram was unclear.
US researchers have conducted two studies which have produced highly promising results.
In the first study TOMO was compared against standard plain film mammography.
In total, 40 women took part in the study, of which 22 had a malignant growth in their breast.
The standard technology correctly identified 16 out of the 22 cases, but TOMO identified two more.
The second study focused on 45 patients who had been called back for a second mammogram because their first showed a possible abnormality.
Further analysis found that 30 of these women simply had a harmless irregularity in their breast tissue.
Radiologists examined TOMO scans of the 30 women, and concluded that if the results had been available alongside the standard scans, then only five would have been called back.
Lead researcher Dr Elizabeth Rafferty, of Massachusetts General Hospital, said: "If we could have used TOMO on these patients initially, it would have saved 25 women the anxiety they felt and the inconvenience they experienced of being called back for additional tests."
TOMO works by taking multiple projections of the breast at different angles.
These projections are then reconstructed into a 3D data set.
The technology allows doctors to look at individual slices of the breast in isolation.
This reduces the problem of overlapping structures in the breast.
This can hide cancers, and can also produce shadows on conventional mammograms which may be wrongly interpreted as a sign of cancer.
TOMO is also more comfortable for the patient. The patient's breasts only need to be compressed once, compared to twice for the standard two-view mammogram.
Dr Rafferty stressed that the technique was still in its infancy. However, she said it would only get better.
A spokeswoman for the UK National Breast Screening Programme said new forms of digital screening technology were about to be tested at two hospitals in the UK.
She said: "We watch any research which comes over from the States with interest.
"But before we can consider any new technology for implimention on a national basis it must be fully evaluated.
"I would stress that the current breast screening programme is based on sound research evidence."
Dr Rafferty will present the results of her studies during the American Roentgen Ray Society Annual Meeting in San Diego.