Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) could help pinpoint women at risk of developing breast cancer, researchers suggest. The study, published in Radiology, looked at the relationship between cancer risk and particular features in MR images.
With the exception of a relatively small number of patients who have a known genetic mutation that suggests a high risk of breast cancer, determining the precise risk for an individual is limited. In the new study, researchers examined the MRI scans of high-risk women with no history of breast cancer, looking at breast density and background parenchymal enhancement (BPE).
“The risk factors we used to determine risk are common in the general population and are weak individual predictors of risk,” says study co-author Habib Rahbar, M.D., assistant professor at the University of Washington. “The advantage of using imaging markers to predict risk is that they may be more specific to an individual’s true risk rather than be markers that are accurate on a population level."
Breast density has previously been associated with a higher risk of cancer, though the exact reason why is not known. Researchers also looked at BPE, where normal background tissue—known as fibroglandular tissue—in the breast shows up “brightly” on MR images. While BPE was previously thought to be “insignificant,” Rahbar says the results from his study are starting to change this thinking.
“We are learning that it may in fact be a strong predictor of whether a patient will develop breast cancer in the future,” he tells IFLScience.
The study found that women with a greater amount of BPE were nine times more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than those with little to no levels when researchers followed up with the patients. Mammographic density, however, did not show a significant link to cancer risk.
Rahbar and his team suggest if a patient’s risk of developing breast cancer is determined using BPE, patients can make more informed decisions on the frequency of screening regimens and whether supplemental screening with techniques like MRI would benefit them. This could lead to a more personalized approach to prevention and could aid in the decision to apply preventative measures such as the drug tamoxifen or undergo mastectomies.
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women, with an estimated 508,000 women dying from the disease in 2011, according to the World Health Organization. Rahbar and his research team hope to expand their research and identify ways to incorporate BPE into existing models that are used to determine risk of developing breast cancer in order to best pinpoint a woman’s individual breast cancer risk.