New scan could replace biopsies

By Carrie Johnson • Published: July 1st, 2010
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

The first shock is the news: the doctor suspects cancer.

Next comes the biopsy, a process that is often painful and leaves patients in suspense for several days while waiting for results. The tests are also expensive – as much as nineteen hundred dollars for the liver, and up to forty-five hundred for the prostate. And they’re not without risk. A biopsy can cause infection or a major blood vessel may be ruptured while the test is administered.

But a new type of ultrasound may cut down on the number of people who need biopsies to test for cancer.

It’s called elastography and experts hope it can help doctors distinguish between malignant and benign tissue without the use of a needle.

Here’s how it works: Cancerous tissue is much stiffer than regular tissue… up to twenty-eight times stiffer. Elastography measures the elasticity of the tissue by applying a mechanical compression or vibration. The less the tumor moves or deforms, the greater the chance that it is malignant.

Some experts are predicting that elastography will completely replace biopsies for detection of breast cancer within four to five years. One radiologist conducting an ongoing study said elastography accurately predicted fifty-eight out of fifty-nine cases of malignant breast tumors. However, it was somewhat less accurate… fifty-four out of sixty-nine cases… in predicting non-malignant tumors. All of the cases were verified with biopsies.

While the devices aren’t yet perfect, private companies are betting on elastography. G.E., Siemens, Hitachi and Aloka have already invested large sums in the technology.

For patients may have cancer, this could mean there will be a kinder, gentler approach to diagnosing suspicious tumors in the future.