updated 12/21/2006 1:17:25 PM ET 2006-12-21T18:17:25

A new type of ultrasound was highly effective at determining whether lumps in the female breast were cancerous or harmless, U.S. researchers who conducted a small study said on Monday.

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The finding, if confirmed in a larger trial, could reduce the number of unnecessary breast biopsies and reassure women that their tumors are harmless, said Richard Barr, a radiologist at Southwoods X-Ray and Open MRI in Youngstown, Ohio, who conducted the study.

“If we can document that the technique is extremely accurate, I think it will give women the assurance that (a tumor) is benign and they don’t have to worry,” Barr said. “With the existing technology, that is not there.”

Known as elasticity imaging, the technique is essentially a powerful version of conventional ultrasound. Using a special software program developed by Siemens Medical Solutions, a unit of the German industrial conglomerate Siemens AG, radiologists tracked the movement of breast tissue during an ultrasound to determine the stiffness of an object.

Barr studied 166 suspected breast tumors in 99 women who were scheduled for biopsy. The lesions were measured using both the standard ultrasound technique and elasticity ultrasound.

Radiologists characterized breast lesions that appeared smaller using the elasticity ultrasound as harmless, while lesions that appeared larger using the elasticity ultrasound were characterized as malignant.

Doctors then performed biopsies on 80 of the women. The results showed that elasticity imaging correctly identified all 17 malignant lesions and 105 of 106 benign lesions, for a sensitivity of 100 percent and a specificity of 99 percent.

“If we can confirm that the lesion ... is benign, then we can eliminate a lot of biopsies,” Barr said.

Early detection
He said the ultrasound technique, if confirmed in a larger study, might be an effective tool for early breast cancer detection.

While mammography is the standard breast cancer screening test, magnetic resonance imaging or MRI can be more effective at spotting lesions, particularly in women with dense breast tissue.

However, the technique is less effective at distinguishing between harmless cysts and cancers, resulting in a higher number of invasive biopsies.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 80 percent of breast lesions biopsied are found to be harmless. It estimates that more than 200,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year.

“MRI is a very sensitive technique. It finds everything. The problem is it is not very specific,” Barr said.

“Elasticity imaging appears to have very high specificity,” Barr said. “The combination of those two may be a very powerful tool in the detection of cancer.”

Barr is planning to expand his research in an international, multicenter trial of more than 2,000 patients beginning in January, he said.

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

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