Researchers Develop a Tool that Can Help Surgeons Better Distinguish Breast Cancer Tissue From Normal Tissue

According to a new study from Brigham and Women's researchers.

According to reps at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), up to 40 percent of patients undergoing breast cancer surgery require additional operations. That’s because all of the cancerous tissue may not be removed in the initial operation. Now, researchers at BWH may have figured out how to do away with those repeat operations.

In a new study, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesresearchers at BWH successfully tested a tool they developed that will help surgeons better distinguish cancerous breast tissue from normal tissue, which, the researchers say, may decrease the chances for repeat operations.

According to a report from the hospital:

The tool, known as DESI mass spectrometry imaging (or Desorption ElectroSpray Ionization mass spectrometry imaging), works by turning molecules into electrically charged versions of themselves, called ions, so that they can be identified by their mass. By analyzing the mass of the ions, the contents of a tissue sample can then be identified. The tool sprays a microscopic stream of charged solvent onto the tissue surface to gather information about its molecular makeup and produces a color-coded image revealing the nature and concentration of tumor cells.

In this particular case, the researchers used DESI mass spectrometry imaging to look at the distribution and amounts of fatty acid substances, called lipids, within breast tissue and normal tissue from 61 samples obtained from 14 breast cancer patients that underwent mastectomy. A software program was used to characterize the breast cancer tumors and detect boundaries between healthy and cancerous tissue.

The researchers found that oleic acid and other fatty acids were more bountiful in breast cancer tissue than in normal tissue. These results were also confirmed using traditional pathology methods to test for accuracy, according to hospital reps.

“Our findings demonstrate the feasibility of classifying cancerous and normal breast tissues using DESI mass spectrometry imaging,” said Nathalie Agar, director of the Surgical Molecular Imaging Laboratory at BWH and a senior author of the study. “The results may help us to move forward in improving this method so that surgeons can use it to rapidly detect residual cancer tissue during breast cancer surgery, hopefully decreasing the need for multiple operations.”

Agar says that the researchers plan to continue to work “toward validating the identified biomarkers—the fatty acid substances—to provide tumor margin information during breast cancer surgery.” Also, BWH reps say that the hospital plans to use the tool “in the near future” in its Advanced Multimodality Image Guided Operating (AMIGO) suite, “to test its performance in detecting breast cancer margins during patient surgery.”