Can Imaging Techniques Identify Early Metastasis in Lymph Nodes?

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A study published in Cancer Research concluded that a highly sensitive imaging technique for non-invasive screening of lymph nodes for metastatic cancer has been developed that offers a rapid tool for noninvasive identifying cancer spread at its earliest stages based upon testing in mice. The technique uses an imaging approach known as ultrasound-guided photoacoustics combined with nonosensors designed to target and identify metastatic cells in lymph nodes.

Over 90% of cancer deaths can be attributed to metastases directly or indirectly. Currently an invasive surgical procedure called sentinel lymph node (SLN) biopsy is used to identify the region and spread of tumors but the procedure has adverse side effects including pain, numbness and risk of infection. Noninvasive imaging modalities have been tested in animals and patients in order to improve the accuracy and safety of lymph node biopsies. Some imaging techniques such as position emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have shown some potential but lack the specificity and sensitivity to be effective. The new technique seems to be more accurate and have improved  sensitivity. Overall, the testing in mice showed a sensitivity of 100% and a specificity of 87% for detection of lymph nodes micrometases as small as 50 micrometers, which corresponds to about 30 metastatic cells. Detection of cells in small numbers in lymph nodes offers a system having the ability to identify metastasis very early in the process, which would allow early treatment. Although these are early studies in mice, the researchers are optimistic about translating the technology for use in humans and expanding the use of the system. More research is planned.

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