Better Imaging in the Fight Against Breast Cancer

How can you make breast imaging better? This is the question asked by a group of engineers, imaging scientists, and radiologists. The answer they found was amazing.

Researchers in Cincinnati Children’s Imaging Research Center took on this challenging question last year and developed what may be the world’s best MR imaging coil for breast MRI. Since almost every researcher on the team had a family member or friend who has faced breast cancer, the challenge was very personal.

Today, the standard way to make diagnostic images of the breast is to do a mammogram that uses x-rays. The technique is quick and relatively inexpensive, but it does require breast compression that is sometimes painful. Furthermore, x-ray imaging is far from perfect. X-ray breast imaging is effective at spotting small calcifications, but it’s often difficult to provide a definitive diagnosis from the results. In these cases, a biopsy is critical.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the breast has been around for some time. While MRI hasn’t been able to provide the same clearness as x-ray, it is better at showing the difference between benign (non-cancerous) abnormalities and cancers. MRI can be a lot more comfortable for patients, but it is more expensive and it takes longer to get all the pictures.

MRI is very safe for patients. It does not use radiation for imaging like x-rays or mammograms. Instead, MRI uses a strong magnetic field to produce images. Imaging coils are specially designed parts of the MRI equipment that help focus the signals in the magnetic field to get more detailed pictures of the body part being imaged.

The researchers in the Imaging Research Center (IRC) aimed their expertise on designing better MRI breast coil technology. Starting with the IRC’s state-of-the-art high-field 3 Tesla MR scanner, the team, including support by Phillips Healthcare, focused on how to make the 32 coils used in breast imaging smaller while still providing highly detailed images. Hours were spent building and rebuilding the mechanical and electrical components of the breast coil until it was finally ready to test.

The results were simply amazing. After about 5 minutes of MRI scanning , detailed three-dimensional pictures of the breasts could be viewed as a single image set with almost 1 billion pixels of imaging quality! Not only is the imaging substantially better, but it’s also achieved in less time.

The IRC’s engineering team has now turned the new breast coil over to the imaging researchers and the radiologists at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center to see how well it will perform for patients. Several research projects are in the works using this new equipment and technology. It is our hope that this new breast coil will pave the way for improved breast imaging and better diagnosis of breast cancer.

Contributed by Charles Dumoulin, PhD IRC Director, Kim Cecil, PhD IRC Faculty, Randy Giaquinto, IRC Faculty Research Instructor and edited by Catherine Leopard.

Catherine Leopard

About the Author: Catherine Leopard

Catherine is a Child Life Specialist who works in Cincinnati Children’s Department of Radiology. She has always been drawn to helping children overcome their fears. As a young child, Catherine remembers sitting in her pediatrician’s office feeling sad as she listened to young babies crying in exam rooms. In response, she began singing lullabies through the walls to sooth and comfort those children in distress. As an adult, she first experienced the support of Child Life when her infant daughter was hospitalized. After that positive experience, Catherine completed her Child Life internship at Cincinnati Children’s and has worked here ever since. Her daughter is now a teenager and her son is an active 3rd grader.

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