University of Arkansas researchers develop new terahertz imaging method to detect breast cancer

Researchers at the University of Arkansas may be finalizing the development of an alternative method to detect and treat breast cancer, according to a University of Arkansas news release.  

The National Institutes of Health-funded study, led by Magna El-Shenawee, PhD, University of Arkansas professor of electrical engineering, used pulsed, terahertz imaging to provide high-quality images of breast tissue cancerous tumors.  

"For many years, El-Shenawee has focused on developing this detection system for health-care applications, while also investigating the unique electromagnetic signals emitted by breast cancer cells," according to the news release.  

Pulsed, terahertz imaging is a type of electromagnetic radiation technology previously used to find land mines. The technique can generate images up to 80 micrometers into human tissue and surpass concealing barriers while doing so.   

"Terahertz imaging could lead to fast, noninvasive, and highly specific tumor margin assessment, which in turn could reduce the occurrence of second surgeries, cancer reoccurrence and metastasis," stated the news release.  

Researchers created terahertz images of breast adenocarcinoma cells, taken from 13 tumor samples. Accuracy testing involved statistically comparing the images to high-resolution histopathology images of the same samples. 

El-Shenawee and colleagues found that in all obtained cancer and fat tissue samples, the terahertz images detected cancerous tissue with high accuracy and specificity. However, terahertz images in tissue samples containing cancer, fat, and muscle showed the margins of tumors and muscle tissue at low accuracy and specificity.  

“Overlap between muscle and cancer tissue in the terahertz image creates some challenge in correctly classifying these regions,” El-Shenawee said in a prepared statement. “While muscle is unlikely to be present in surgical sections of human breast cancer, other kinds of fibrous tissue may be, so this requires further investigation with more advanced models.” 

According to El-Shewanee and her team, future research will focus on spontaneously generated cancer tumors from genetically modified mice, which should provide even more accurate images of tumors. The generated terahertz images will also be compared to radiography and computed tomography imaging of the same samples. 

The original study was published online in the February issue of the Journal of Biomedical Optics.