CBC News: ‘Virtual biopsy’: Thunder Bay researcher helps develop new PET-scan technique to find breast cancer

A researcher at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., has received a national award for his work on creating a breast imaging alternative to traditional mammograms.

Sasha Bubon is part of team that has developed a way to use positron emission tomography (PET) to deliver high-resolution images at a much lower dose of radiation.

“To compare to X-ray mammography, there is no longer any squishing with this, we just slightly immobilize the breast and this arrangement allows us to lower the dose associated with this procedure, by like 10 or 15 times depending on the situation and it’s down to the same amount of dose which is associated with X-ray mammography,” he said. 

Scan examines breast on cellular level

The decrease in the radiation dose is significant Bubon explained, noting that PET scans are usually reserved for treatment planning or treatment followup “when the burden of the radiation dose for the patient is not as high, due to the other doses that the patient would be receiving.”

X-ray mammography detects cancers by looking for irregularities in the structure of the breast, for instance areas of calcification, milk ducts with odd twists in them etc.

This new cutting edge technology examines the breast at the molecular level by looking at how the cells are functioning. Because cancer cells multiply so rapidly, they have a faster metabolism and absorb fuel quicker than do surrounding tissues.

Bubon said patients are injected with a radioactive glucose solution and then this new type of PET-scan measures the differences in consumption rates. 

Can detect tumours 2mm in size

“This allows us to distinguish cancerous tissues from normal tissues. In the case of our device, we’re able to locate a small turmour, smaller than two millimetres in size, with the very high specificity and probability of around 98 per cent when it’s combined with X-ray mammography.”

This new process could prove particularly effective at finding cancer in women with dense breast tissue, which tends to hide the tumours or can look like a tumour resulting in further stressful testing.

“We call it sometimes ‘the virtual biopsy’ because if it shows there is a cancer, it’s very likely it is and if it shows there is no cancer then it means there is no cancer if you don’t see it through any of the other techniques which allows us to reduce this huge number of unnecessary biopsies.”

Clinical trials underway in Toronto

In November 2019, Bubon received an award for outstanding commercialization from the National Research Council Industrial Research Assistance Program and Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization supporting growth and innovation in Canadian businesses and academia.

“It is an honour to receive this award and have my research recognized in this way,” said Bubon in a written release at the time. “There is a huge need for this lower-dose, high-resolution imaging device and we’re only just beginning to see the incredible potential this technology has.”

The latest version of the technology, a fully enclosed system on wheels, is in clinical trials at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. Bubon said he hopes to be ready to seek U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Health Canada approval by mid-2020, with testing beginning in Thunder Bay soon after.

Bubon is the medical chief technology officer of Radialis Medical, a joint venture of Lakehead University and the Thunder Bay Regional Research Institute. He co-founded the company with Canada Research Chair professor Alla Reznik in February 2016.

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