A hi-tech scan that takes just five seconds to perform can tell if chemotherapy is working in patients with breast cancer.
The scan, which involves waving a hand-held probe resembling a shower head over the tumour site, can detect tiny changes that indicate whether it is responding to chemo drugs after just one round of treatment.
The breakthrough means women showing no early signs of improvement can be switched to other drugs or treatments, sparing them from the unnecessary and toxic side-effects of chemotherapy.
Currently, most patients undergoing chemo have to endure several weeks or months of treatment — often with debilitating side-effects, such as nausea, hair loss and extreme fatigue — before they find out whether their tumour has shrunk.
The scan, which involves waving a hand-held probe resembling a shower head over the tumour site, can detect tiny changes that indicate whether it is responding to chemo drugs after just one round of treatment
The new technique could potentially slash that time to a matter of hours, allowing doctors to try other chemotherapy combinations or carry out surgery sooner in a bid to stop the cancer from spreading. At present, there can be a wait of weeks or months to see if the drugs are working.
Up to 55,000 women a year in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer, with one in seven women developing it in their lifetime.
Chemotherapy is often given before surgery to shrink tumours and make them easier to remove, as well as reduce the chances of a patient needing a mastectomy. But it is also routinely used after surgery to ‘mop up’ any lingering cancer cells.
Doctors currently track the success of chemotherapy using a combination of blood tests, X-rays and CT scans (a kind of 3D X-ray). But these can be time-consuming, and changes in tumour size or structure are not always obvious.
The new five-second scan is not only rapid but highly detailed.
As the probe is passed over the breast, it beams sound waves and infrared light into the tissue. Tiny sensors in the probe instantly measure the rate at which both sound and light are reflected — producing an image that reveals tiny changes in the tumour.
Any disruption to these reflections suggest the cancer is still active. For example, the readings can show whether the tiny blood vessels that spring up around a tumour (in order to keep it supplied with the oxygen it needs to grow) are disappearing, or growing even more rapidly, after just one cycle of chemotherapy.
Scientists who developed the scan at Washington University in St Louis and Barnes-Jewish Hospital, both in the U.S., tested it on 38 women with breast cancer. They had the scan before and after three bouts of chemo.
The results, published recently in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, showed it was highly accurate in predicting which tumours would respond well to chemo.
Now the same team are setting up a project to fit the technology into existing hospital ultrasound machines so they can produce more detailed tumour scans. The technology can also be used for head and neck cancers.
The new scan seems ‘very promising in detecting patients that are not responding to chemotherapy, meaning they can have surgery sooner’, says Jayant Vaidya, a professor of surgery and oncology at University College London, but ‘further trials are needed’.
Could drug to clear away old cells banish jaw pain?
Jaw pain may be healed by clearing ‘dead’ cells, according to a U.S. study.
Jaw pain — or temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) — is a common condition previously thought to be caused by stress-related tooth-grinding.
Now, scientists from the University of Connecticut believe that dead cells may be partly to blame.Once they die, our cells get flushed away. But some stick around, causing pain.
The team found combining the drug dasatinib with quercetin, an antioxidant, clears dead cells in the jaws of mice, allowing new cells to flourish, reports the journal Aging Cell.
Medical treatments that might make your stomach turn. This week: Leeches to help with surgery
The NHS often uses leeches to reduce the build-up of blood in ‘re-attachment’ operations, i.e. surgery for detached fingers.
‘If you are trying to surgically reattach someone’s fingers, for example, and there is a lot of damage, it can be difficult to connect the smaller veins,’ explains Hazim Sadideen, a consultant plastic and reconstructive surgeon at the Cadogan Clinic in London.
‘This can lead to the re-attached finger becoming swollen with pooling blood which needs to be drained, and leeches can be ideal in this scenario. They suck out the blood but also secrete substances that thin it and make tiny marks that the blood can continue to ooze from,’ he says.
The NHS often uses leeches to reduce the build-up of blood in ‘re-attachment’ operations, i.e. surgery for detached fingers
Leeches feed for 30 to 60 minutes, consuming 5ml to 15ml of blood. Most people don’t feel anything (or just an initial ‘pin-prick’ bite) as the area is still numb from surgery, says Mr Sadideen.
‘But leech saliva contains a local anaesthetic, so patients normally report reduced pain after that.’
The leeches for the NHS are specially farmed in Wales.
Household products such as paints, varnishes and disinfectants should carry warnings that they increase the risk of asthma, say scientists at the University of Exeter. Levels of volatile organic compounds from them can be up to ten times higher indoors, increasing the chance of adults developing asthma by up to 40 per cent.
Diet rich in omega 3 boosts mental health
Eating foods rich in omega 3 and 6 could reduce teenagers’ risk of anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions, reports a study by the RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences in Dublin.
Scientists interviewed and took blood samples from 3,800 young people, aged 17 to 24, and found a possible link between lower levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fats and mental health problems such as depression.
Omega fats are known to play a role in dampening inflammation in the brain and, researchers believe, may also support other parts of brain development.
Writing in the journal Translational Psychiatry, they suggest these nutrients undergo further trials.
Blood test to show the best time to eat, sleep and take pills
What’s the best time for you to take your medication or go to bed? Researchers at the University of Colorado in the U.S. have developed a blood test they believe could give the answer.
Using just a few drops of blood, they say they can identify 64 different metabolites (molecules released by the body’s cells when they burn energy) that indicate how your internal body clock (or circadian rhythm) is set up and what the best time is for you to eat, sleep or exercise, according to a report in the Journal of Biological Rhythms.
Studies show not acting in sync with circadian rhythms can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and depression. Researcher Christopher Depner said it ‘could be ground-breaking in terms of personalised medicine’.
Grandmothers may pass on DDT obesity risk
The granddaughters of pregnant women exposed to the now-banned pesticide DDT have a higher risk of obesity and are more likely to begin menstruating earlier than their peers, according to a report in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.
Previous studies have linked DDT with higher rates of breast cancer, obesity and high blood pressure in the daughters of such women.
But the latest study, by researchers at the Public Health Institute in Oakland, U.S., is the first to suggest these effects could be inherited by later generations.
DDT was originally used to stop the spread of malaria and typhus, and later as an agricultural and household pesticide.
It was banned in the UK in 1986 but exposure to it has previously also been linked with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life.
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Scientific terms decoded. This week: Peripheral neuropathy
Experiencing regular numbness or tingling in the fingers and toes is a characteristic sign of peripheral neuropathy — damage to the nerves in the hands and feet.
Peripheral means ‘beyond a boundary’, derived from the Ancient Greek words, peri (‘around’) and phero (‘to carry’); and neur (‘nerve’).
The peripheral nerves are the part of the nervous system not enclosed in bones, and include the sensory nerves (which send pain and touch messages), motor nerves (which control muscles) and autonomic nerves (which help regulate body functions such as blood pressure).
Peripheral neuropathy is typically linked to diabetes, viral infections (such as shingles) and physical injury.