A novel 3D X-ray technology for better breast cancer diagnosis

Breast cancer

A new 3D X-ray procedure for the early detection of breast cancer is raising high hopes as it improves the resolution of mammography images.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the most commonly diagnosed cancer in 2020 was breast cancer – with over two million cases worldwide. The 685,000 breast cancer-related deaths in the same year show that early detection is central in the fight against the disease. As with almost every type of cancer, the chances of recovery and survival for breast cancer sufferers are higher the earlier the disease is detected – and the more precisely the tumours can be localised. With breast cancer, however, this is anything but easy.

Numerous misdiagnoses

Today, the most important method for detecting breast cancer is mammography. The breast is compressed, i.e. pressed between two glass plates, and then x-rayed. This examination is not only unpleasant and sometimes painful, it also too often delivers positive findings where there is no cancer at all. Conventional X-rays pass through soft tissue too easily. This makes it difficult to distinguish between healthy breast tissue and tumours. According to The Journal of the American Medical Association, misdiagnoses occur in 10-20% of breast cancer cases.

A breakthrough thanks to 3D X-ray computed tomography

A Swiss research team from the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) and ETH Zurich has achieved a breakthrough after ten years of research. With a new type of 3D X-ray computed tomography, breast tumours can be detected earlier than with conventional computed tomography. The new method is based on a technique known as grating interferometry, which makes it possible to see how X-rays are bent or refracted as they pass through the breast. This produces images with higher resolution and makes it easier to detect tumours at an early stage. The new method is designed to produce high-resolution 3D images without the inconvenience to patients associated with conventional methods.

The X-ray light required for this can be generated with a standard X-ray source and roughly corresponds to the radiation dose used in conventional computer tomography breast scans.

With GratXray, researchers have already founded a corresponding ETH Zurich and PSI spin-off and are aiming to develop a commercial device from the end of 2024 onwards, provided that the clinical trials progress according to plan.