Public Release: 

The fine line between breast cancer and normal tissues

Imaging tool may reduce need for repeat breast cancer operations

Brigham and Women's Hospital

Boston, MA - Up to 40 percent of patients undergoing breast cancer surgery require additional operations because surgeons may fail to remove all the cancerous tissue in the initial operation. However, researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) have successfully tested a tool they developed that will help surgeons better distinguish cancerous breast tissue from normal tissue, thereby decreasing the chances for repeat operations.

The study is published online the week of September 22, 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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 several fatty acids, such as oleic acid, were more abundant in breast cancer tissue compared to normal tissue. The results were also confirmed using traditional pathology methods to test for accuracy.

"Our findings demonstrate the feasibility of classifying cancerous and normal breast tissues using DESI mass spectrometry imaging," said Nathalie Agar, PhD, director of the Surgical Molecular Imaging Laboratory, BWH Departments of Neurosurgery and Radiology, senior study author. "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, who also is affiliated with the Department of Cancer Biology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, notes 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. Moreover, BWH 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.


This research was funded by the National Institutes of Health Director's New Innovator Award (1DP2OD007383-01), United States Army Medical Research/CIMIT, and National Center for Image Guided Therapy.

Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) is a 793-bed nonprofit teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School and a founding member of Partners HealthCare. BWH has more than 3.5 million annual patient visits, is the largest birthing center in Massachusetts and employs nearly 15,000 people. The Brigham's medical preeminence dates back to 1832, and today that rich history in clinical care is coupled with its national leadership in patient care, quality improvement and patient safety initiatives, and its dedication to research, innovation, community engagement and educating and training the next generation of health care professionals. Through investigation and discovery conducted at its Brigham Research Institute (BRI), BWH is an international leader in basic, clinical and translational research on human diseases, more than 1,000 physician-investigators and renowned biomedical scientists and faculty supported by nearly $650 million in funding. For the last 25 years, BWH ranked second in research funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) among independent hospitals. BWH continually pushes the boundaries of medicine, including building on its legacy in transplantation by performing a partial face transplant in 2009 and the nation's first full face transplant in 2011. BWH is also home to major landmark epidemiologic population studies, including the Nurses' and Physicians' Health Studies and the Women's Health Initiative. For more information, resources and to follow us on social media, please visit BWH's online newsroom.

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