Hand-held scanner that spots tiny breast lumps could be key to early detection, experts say 

A high-tech, handheld scanner could help diagnose breast cancer early.

The gadget, which painlessly examines breast tissue, accurately detects small lumps under the skin in five to ten minutes, research suggests, and picks up those a manual examination might miss.

Similar in size and shape to a small iron, it offers an alternative to the manual breast checks carried out by GPs.

Around 55,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the UK. 

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The gadget, which painlessly examines breast tissue, accurately detects small lumps under the skin in five to ten minutes, research suggests, and picks up those a manual examination might miss

Almost all (98 per cent) patients diagnosed at the earliest stage of the disease survive for at least five years. For those whose cancer isn’t detected until the latest stage, the figure is 25 per cent.

Currently, women undergo mammograms if referred by a GP, or as part of the national screening programme that’s offered to all women aged 50 to 71 every three years. These identify around 87 per cent of tumours.

But almost half of women don’t turn up for their appointments, according to NHS Digital.

This may be because they find the process uncomfortable. Some women also have concerns about the radiation involved (although the exposure from one scan is very small — equivalent to seven weeks of the background radiation from our everyday surroundings, suggests the American Cancer Society, from things such as microwaves).

The new, battery-operated scanner has hundreds of tiny, vibrating, ceramic plates on its underside.

These measure the elasticity of the tissue as the device is gently pressed down on the breast and moved across it — less elastic or stiffer areas indicate a lump.

The results are then wirelessly sent to a computer, which produces a ‘map’ of the breast tissue. A 2020 study of almost 500 women in the U.S. found the handheld scanner to be as good as manual breast examinations at detecting lumps.

The iBreastExam was also found to be helpful in triaging — deciding which women should be sent for mammograms — according to the research published in the journal JCO Global Oncology. The device has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. medical regulator, and is being used in India, Egypt and Mexico to help untrained health staff.

Commenting on the technology, Dr Mohsen El Gammal, a consultant breast surgeon for The Harley Medical Group, based in London, says the new device could be especially useful in GP surgeries to help determine which patients need further investigation.

‘There are lots of patients who don’t actually have a lump but are worried, and primary care staff may not have much experience to tell the difference,’ he says. ‘However, it does not replace mammograms or specialist opinion which requires years of experience.’

n meanwhile, a computer algorithm can determine whether breast lumps are cancerous by analysing high-tech breast scans, report researchers from the University of Dartmouth in the U.S., who developed the software.

It combines and analyses two types of images — MRI scans and near-infrared spectral tomography, a type of scan technology that uses infrared light to provide detailed images about breast tissue, and which has only been used in trials.

The new software, which is called Z-Net, takes only seconds to read the combined scans and make a judgment on whether there is cancer present, according to the journal Optica.

The researchers hope to soon test the accuracy of the software in clinical trials.

Seaweed gel to heal fractures

Plastic molecules that expand in a seaweed-based gel when exposed to an electric current could help heal fractures.

A team at Linkoping University, Sweden, put the molecules into a gel that can be injected into bone, where it adapts to the shape of the break. The molecule has an electrically activated plastic edge that can be controlled by an external current, causing it to expand.

The treatment ‘filled’ breaks when tested on chicken bones. The journal Advanced Material reports that the gel could act as internal glue.

Obesity can raise risk of gum disease

Obese people have higher rates of gum disease and tooth loss because of chronic inflammation triggered by their weight, reports the Journal of Dental Research.

It had been thought that lower intake of nutrients was to blame.

But researchers from Buffalo University in the U.S. — who fed mice either high-fat or lower-fat diets — found those consuming more calories produced much greater levels of myeloid-derived suppressors.

These are immune system cells that can develop into osteoclasts — which break down bone tissue, such as in the jaw that holds teeth in place. 

Gut instinct 

This week: Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis, where the arteries become furred, can be a sign of heart problems and normally occurs in people with other risk factors such as high blood pressure.

However, a 2018 study by the University of Western Ontario, Canada, revealed not only did people with unexplained atherosclerosis have different bacteria in their gut compared with those with clear arteries, but they also had higher levels of toxic substances, says David Spence, a professor of neurology, who led the study.

‘These metabolites have different effects — one called TMAO, for example, accelerates atherosclerosis and increases blood clotting.’

The effect was so strong that the presence of these substances was a greater predictor of furring than traditional signs such as cholesterol.

He is leading a trial to identify the helpful bacteria, with the aim of putting these into capsules ‘as a novel way to treat atherosclerosis’, he says.

Do this

Limit TV time to cut your risk of blood clots, suggests a study. 

A team from Bristol University, looking at 131,000 people, found those who watched four or more hours of TV a day were a third more likely to develop blood clots than those viewing for 2.5 hours or less. 

Reduced blood flow from sitting down longer may lead to thicker blood, reports the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. 

Drainage tube makes eye op safer

A tiny tube implant designed to treat glaucoma by draining fluid in the eye also cuts the risk of post-operative complications.

In a study of 21 patients, experts at Lisbon University tested the PAUL Glaucoma Implant, which isn’t much wider than a piece of thread.

The results, published in the Journal of Glaucoma, show it reduced eye pressure by an average of two thirds, without causing pressure to plummet too low.

Did you know? 

Resistance training — involving improving your muscle strength and endurance — was previously thought to help men build more strength than women. But now a study of 1,400 participants shows men and women aged over 50 can gain similar benefits when measured relative to body size, according to researchers from the University of New South Wales in Australia. 

Guinea pigs

Scientists who made medical advances by putting their bodies on the line. This week: Olivier Ameisen and drug treatment for alcoholism

Could a pill cure alcoholism? French cardiologist Olivier Ameisen tested this out, for very personal reasons.

The doctor was an alcoholic — when other methods such as AA didn’t work, he tried the drug baclofen after reading an article describing how it reduced cravings of cocaine addicts.

In 2002, he started taking it in small and increasing doses, reaching 270 mg in 2004 (the maximum in most countries was 150-190 mg). While he suffered short-term sleepiness, Ameisen was astonished to find his desire to drink had gone.

However, many health professionals were not convinced, not least as the drug had to be prescribed off label (i.e., not given for its intended use).

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