Device expected to help detect cancer

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Imaging technology and nuclear medicine usually are seen as separate health-care tools. A Hampton Roads company, however, has brought the two together in a device that promises to increase breast cancer survival rates.

Dilon Technologies in Newport News makes a high-resolution, digital, gamma camera based on technology developed at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility. The company is housed in the Applied Research Center next to the Jefferson Lab campus.

The device complements mammography in detecting cancer cells in women with dense breast tissue, breast implants or scar tissue as a result of biopsies or radiation therapy. “A mammogram looks at structure, the anatomy of the breast, so it gives you a picture of what something looks like,” says Nancy Morter, Dilon’s director of marketing.  “Our camera measures molecular activity and energy, by indicating whether the actual cells are healthy or diseased.”

Here’s the way it works: A patient is injected with a radioisotope, which acts as a tracing agent. The radioisotope is absorbed by all cells in the body. Cancer cells, however, have a much higher rate of metabolic activity. They absorb 10 times more of the tracing agent than healthy cells and emit it as invisible gamma rays. A specialized detector in Dilon’s imaging device picks up the rays, and the camera creates a digital image indicating where the cancer cells might be located.

The camera is used as an adjunct to a mammogram, Morter says. Mammograms are 90 to 95 percent effective at picking up abnormalities in most patients but only 60 percent effective for patients with extremely dense or altered breast tissue.

Dilon’s gamma camera has a 94 to 96 percent accuracy rate, Morter says. “Nothing is 100 percent accurate in detecting cancers, even biopsies.”
The device has been installed at 110 hospitals and women’s imaging centers, including five in Virginia, and several orders are pending.

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