Ultrasound Technology in Breast Cancer Surgery

Co-investigators: Leigh Neumayer, MD, MS, and Timothy Doyle, PhD

Ultrasound has long been used to help diagnose breast cancer. Now, technological developments show potential uses for ultrasound in the operating room. Neumayer heads one study that uses very high-frequency ultrasound during surgery to analyze the edges of a breast tumor to make sure all cancer cells have been removed. While the aim is to remove as little breast tissue as possible during breast cancer surgery, it's important to remove a margin of normal cells along with the tumor.

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Leigh Neumayer, MD, examines a breast ultrasound during surgery

"When that margin is less than two millimeters, the risk that the cancer will come back increases. It's not always easy to determine the edge of the tumor during surgery," says Neumayer. "Currently, tumor margins must be reviewed by pathologists after surgery, and some patients have to return for another surgery to remove more tissue [if cancer cells are found at the margin]."

Her team, which includes a former rocket scientist who used ultrasound to detect tiny impurities in solid fuel rocket engines, is working on an ultrasound device that can distinguish between cancer and normal cells, and provide an exact measurement of the margin within seconds—right in the operating room. A paper on the team's work was published during 2011 in the journal Biomed Central Cancer. Neumayer is also a co-investigator on a study looking at highly focused ultrasound (HIFU), along with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), in the first completely non-invasive method to remove breast cancer tumors. Ablation destroys tumor cells without surgery, using extreme heat or cold. "All the current ablation techniques require cutting into the breast to insert instruments. With the HIFU technique we're developing, that won't be necessary," says Neumayer. Other collaborators include researchers from radiology and mechanical engineering.