Researchers from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh have developed a new ultrasound technology that could pick up far more cases of cancer and may reduce the need for biopsies in investigating suspected cancer cases in the future.
At present, ultrasounds can help identify potential problems with key organs but are not sensitive enough to detect cancer. The researchers say that the newly developed ultrasound technique can produce images with five to 10 times the resolution of traditional methods.
The new technique allows organs and blood flow to be scanned in super-resolution for the first time.
The process works by injecting tiny bubbles into the bloodstream and scanning organs so that the blood flow can be shown with 0.05mm precision. The patient needs only stay still for a few minutes while they are scanned – allowing images to be produced in a reasonable time.
Using computer technology these bubbles are tracked to produce images of greater resolution. By looking at blood vessels and flow, experts are able to map the networks that are enabling cancerous tumours to grow.
Dr Vassilis Sboros, from Heriot-Watt University, who led the research, said: “What we can see is all these bubbles one by one – we see dots in the image. By joining the dots we end up with a picture that has much more detail and a lot more specific information.”
“At the moment we can detect a few cancers with ultrasound but our new technique increases the confidence with which we can be sure whether something looks cancerous. We now need to do clinical trials on humans, but we may well be able to pick up cancers, such as pancreatic cancer and liver cancer, far earlier.” he added.
Due to the super-resolution capability of the new images, researchers anticipate that the ultrasound technique could precisely pinpoint tumours and diagnose and treat a range of cancers.
“We will work to establish the usefulness of our method in the upcoming clinical study. We hope that further research will help expand this method to other applications in cardiovascular disease, diabetes, liver disease and transplant rejection and one day biopsies may not be necessary,” said Dr. Sboros.
A study of the technique is published in the Journal of Investigative Radiology, showing that images of prostate cancer could be created.