Researcher Q&A: Exploring a new imaging technique to detect breast cancer early

Published on September 26, 2013

Updated on February 13, 2018

Ehsan Samei, PhD, is Professor of Radiology, Medical Physics, Physics, Biomedical Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke University Medical Center, where he also serves as Director of Carl E. Ravin Advanced Imaging Laboratories and Division Chief of the Clinical Imaging Physics Group. In the spring of 2006, Dr. Samei received a grant from the Prevent Cancer Foundation to research stereo imaging as a new technique for the early detection of breast cancer. We caught up with Dr. Samei and asked him to share his research findings and the impact of receiving funding from Prevent Cancer early in his career.

What led you to the field of breast cancer research?

Past recipient of a Prevent Cancer grant, Dr. Samei, studies stereo imaging as a new technique to detect breast cancer early.

While treatment options continue to advance, early detection remains one of the surest predictors of survival. Medical imaging is an extremely powerful tool for early detection, particularly for breast cancer. I became interested in breast cancer when I realized how an advanced imaging method could benefit thousands of women who would otherwise face (along with their families) the challenges of navigating advanced treatment options.

Tell us about your research examining stereo imaging as a new technique in early detection of breast cancer.

Mammography is currently the only proven method to detect breast cancer early. While effective, conventional mammography still suffers from the overlap of anatomical structures within the image, camouflaging the signs of cancer or otherwise creating false appearances that lead to unnecessary interventions, stress and expense. Stereo perception is the way by which humans can perceive three-dimensional information. This is currently not used in medical imaging. My team asked ourselves how we could take advantage of this technology to improve the early detection of breast cancer. Of course, the devil is in the details! How might we form a stereoscopic depiction of the breast, and, having met that challenge, how might we present that data to a clinician?

Dr. Samei (center) with his research team.

Dr. Samei (center) with his research team.

How did receiving a Prevent Cancer Foundation grant impact your research?

Prevent Cancer provided a significant opportunity to test our hypothesis and take a crucial first step towards implementing the technology. We systematically characterized breast masses. Then we formed low-dose stereoscopic image pairs from 25 human subjects of multi-projection breast images. A computer-aided detection system was then applied to the data to yield the minimum number of false positives with the highest sensitivity. Finally, a state-of-the-art high-resolution stereo display system was customized to display the image pairs. We had five radiologists compare the detection of cancerous lesions in single view and in stereo view. The findings showed that a significant improvement in diagnostic accuracy can be achieved when images are displayed stereoscopically.

Why is it important to fund research in the field of cancer prevention and early detection?

If we ever mean to fully prevent cancer, or at least push its reach back dramatically, we need a team: visionaries who can “see” beyond the status quo, scientists who can “think” through challenging obstacles and sponsors who care and can identify with the vision and be willing to enable an attempt to overcome the challenges. It is true that a single attempt might be unsuccessful, but we will never get there if we don’t try.

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