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Teams of researchers at UMass Lowell are collaborating with colleagues, oncologists and other specialists to develop new ways of screening people for breast cancer that could potentially help save lives.
Computer Science Prof. Georges Grinstein, director of the University’s Institute for Visualization and Perception Research, has developed a program that assesses the risk factors and identifies patients who are highly susceptible to genetic breast and ovarian cancer, or Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer (HBOC). The project, which he is conducting with doctoral student Brian Drohan, is supported by a $235,000 grant from the Massachusetts General Hospital.
Asst. Prof. Mufeed Mah’d of the Electrical & Computer Engineering Department is working on a breast CT (computerized tomography) imaging system for detecting breast cancer at a very early stage. The CT research, which is being conducted with doctoral students Michael O’Conner and Clay Didier, is funded with grants from the UMass Medical School totaling $232,000.
With the exception of certain types of skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women in the United States. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that in 2005 alone, 186,467 women were diagnosed with breast cancer and, of these, 41,116 died from it.
Grinstein says that identifying people at high risk for HBOC involves “synthesizing data from the patients’ family history and quantitative analysis of their risk models. Our program provides physicians an integrated, interactive visualization and analysis approach for presenting HBOC risk information.”
“Although HBOC cases represent a relatively small proportion of the breast cancer cases, they are often left unidentified by traditional cancer-screening protocols,” he says. “After assessing the likelihood of HBOC within a family, understanding the associated future risk of cancer is essential to making informed decisions so that the most appropriate type and level of clinical care is offered and the patient’s life is saved.”
Grinstein adds that their software is now running in many breast cancer centers across the country, along with support for Electronic Health Records. “Our program is very likely to be useful for other kinds of cancer, not just HBOC,” he says.
In explaining his research, Mah’d says, “A mammogram is an X-ray taken through all the layers of the breast at once. The breast CT prototype we are building for the UMass Medical School takes images of virtual ‘slices’ of the breast ߞ; about 300 images per breast. Computers then assemble these images into highly detailed, three-dimensional pictures. Unlike conventional mammography, the breast CT scan requires no breast compression.”
“This CT system is expected to outperform conventional mammography in detecting breast lesions and is much more comfortable for women,” he says.