New pill can improve breast cancer diagnosis

New York: Scientists have developed a pill that could significantly improve the imaging techniques involved in breast cancer and can better help in the diagnosis of the deadly disease — the second most common cancer in women.

Current diagnostics methods like mammograms — X-rays of breast tissue — often identify a lump’s location and size but cannot distinguish between cancerous and benign growths.

“Screening can potentially catch the disease early in some patients but false positives can lead to unnecessary, aggressive treatments in patients who don’t need them. We don’t know how to select the right patients to treat. Our work could help change that,” said Greg Thurber, doctoral researcher from University of Michigan in US.

The oral pill is embedded with an imaging agent that selectively binds to cancer cells or blood vessels that are unique to tumours. Once attached to its target, it lights up under the near-infrared light.

Although at this wavelength, fluorescent tumours can only be detected one to two cm deep, the researchers indicated that given the elasticity of breast tissue, pairing the technique with ultrasound in the same instrument should be able to detect most cancers.

The experiments conducted in mice showed that with the proper formulation, a considerable proportion — 50 to 60 percent — of the agent gets absorbed into the bloodstream.

The probe is now coupled with molecules to make it easier for human patients to absorb. If successful the high image contrast should bode well for women with dense breast tissue whose mammograms are difficult to read.

Additionally, the team is also designing the pill to specifically seek out aggressive tumours — an approach that could distinguish them from slow-growing cancers.

The paper was presented at the 251st national meeting and exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) held in California recently.