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Microwaves used to cook breast cancer

Research group develops treatment system

A novel imaging system for detecting breast cancer under development at USC uses microwaves instead of X-rays. (USC Photo/Katie McKissick)

“It hurt so much less than I thought it was going to hurt!,” Amy Robach said in front of a slew of television cameras broadcasting live from New York.

When the ABC news correspondent agreed to get a mammogram on live television for a breast cancer awareness program on Good Morning America, she admitted that she had been putting off the task.

As a 40-year-old woman, Robach knew it was time to start getting regular mammograms, but she found herself doing the same thing so many women do — finding any reason to postpone it. Fear of the pain the procedure causes and general anxiety are among the top reasons cited by women for neglecting the National Cancer Institute’s recommendation that women over 40 get screened every one to two years.

But Robach was lucky that she participated in the most public mammogram in history: It turns out that she had breast cancer.

How can we change the way mammograms are conducted to make women more likely to undergo this potentially life-saving diagnostic test?

The research group of USC Viterbi School of Engineering Professor Mahta Moghaddam is developing a novel imaging and treatment system for breast cancer. Research Assistant Professor John Stang is the technical lead of the project, which he has been pursuing for more than three years.

Their system is different in several ways. For one thing, the breast doesn’t need to be flattened to get an image of the layers of tissue. Instead, this apparatus would function with the patient lying down on a surface and allowing the breast tissue to rest naturally inside two imaging tunnels. This means imaging can be done without the painful pressing of the tender breast tissue.

Meanwhile, the procedure doesn’t use X-rays to render an image of the breast tissue as current mammograms do. It uses much safer microwaves.

“Microwave radiation is not really radiation radiation,” Moghaddam explained. “It’s just like your cellphone — a little higher power than that, of course, but it’s not intrinsically harmful.”

And the same microwaves used for cancer screenings can be used for cancer treatment.

“One of the goals is to replace lumpectomy with this,” Stang explained. “You would have the temperature high enough to actually cook the tumor in place of a surgical removal.”

A neatly arranged network of amplifiers feeds several small antennas aimed at various angles, allowing the device to focus heat on a specific interior section of the tissue, which means it could cook cancer the way microwave ovens cook food.

The next step to implementing this new system is to build a clinical prototype. The hope for the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering team is to collaborate with experts from radiology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

A few years down the road, there could be a new type of mammogram —and a new type of treatment if cancer is found — that causes less pain and worries for patients, which could mean more screenings and more lives saved.

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Microwaves used to cook breast cancer

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