Researchers at Okayama University in Japan reported that terahertz (THz) radiation can be used to rapidly detect markers for breast-cancer cells.
Reporting their findings in “Sensors and Actuators B: Chemical,” the researchers explained that they had discovered a way to increase the sensitivity of THz radiation for the detection of markers of breast cancer cells, implying that “THz chemical microscopy” could become a powerful alternative screening technique.
In simple terms, THz radiation is sensitive to polar molecules like water; normal and cancer tissues do not have the same water content.
How the technique works
In explaining how the technique works, a press release said the key principle behind Associate Professor Toshihiko Kiwa of Okayama University and his colleagues’ method was that cancer and normal breast cells “bind and don’t bind, respectively, to certain molecules known as aptamers. Aptamers consist of (single-stranded) DNA or RNA fragments; they have a high affinity for particular molecules — in the experiments of the team of Associate Professor Kiwa, these molecules were breast cancer cells.”
The press release further said that the experimental setup the researchers used involved a sensing plate, consisting of a sapphire substrate, and silicon and silicon dioxide thin films. The aptamers were fixed to the top layer.
Irradiating the plate with a specific laser creates charge carriers, the motion of which generates electromagnetic radiation in the THz range. The precise THz response depends, however, on whether the aptamers are “freestanding” (no cells attached) or not (breast-cancer cells attached). The former corresponds to the situation where the sample on the sensing plate only consists of normal cells; for the latter, the sample contains breast-cancer cells, the statement said.
This method of detecting cancer markers was found to be highly sensitive. The study showed that a qualitative assessment of a sample seems possible because the change in the THz signal can be associated with the number of cancer cells per aptamer. The researchers added the caveat that further investigation on the latter association is needed.
Why the study could be a game changer in breast cancer detection
Kiwa, said the results obtained from this study “can be the spark of new evolution in the detection of breast cancer.”
The rapid detection of breast cancer, the most common cancer in women, is crucial; discovering the condition early is the best chance for successful treatment. X-ray screening, popularly known as mammography is the standard detection technique, but scientists warn that it is not without risk because it involves exposing patients to ionizing radiation, itself a known factor in cancer development.
There are also worries that mammography produces false positives, where breast cancer is detected in a healthy patients. There have been cases of false negatives, where detection was missed. With this in mind, researchers are continuously seeking alternative detection methods.
It is estimated that one in eight women in the U.S., translating to about 12%, will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. This year alone, an estimated 268,600 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S., along with 62,930 new cases of non-invasive breast cancer.
With such high numbers, development of rapid breast cancer screening techniques are bound to excite the medical field.
In the U.S. iCAD, one of the few FDA-approved artificial intelligence solutions for radiologists, uses AI to analyze hundreds of data-points to deliver powerful software solutions for breast tomosynthesis, breast density and 2D mammography. iCAD’s AI Profound AI analyzes mammogram images to produce cancer probability scores for radiologists and alerts them of any abnormalities tied to mammogram images for further inspection.