A combination of optical and X-ray imaging can be used to distinguish malignant breast cancers from benign lesions, according to a study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital in the US.

Researchers developed the imaging system by combining digital breast tomosynthesis (DBT), a 3D mammography technique, with diffuse optical tomography (DOT), which uses near-infrared laser to measure haemoglobin concentration, oxygen saturation and other cellular characteristics.

The combined DBT/DOT system was used in 189 breast imaging studies in 125 women, who had an average age of 56 years.

Of the 189 imaging studies, 138 were negative and 51 demonstrated evidence of lesions.

Breast biopsy determined that 26 of the 51 lesions were malignant, while the remaining 25 were benign.

The researchers found that in 26 malignant tumours, total haemoglobin concentration (HbT) was significantly greater than in normal glandular tissue, and that benign lesions had significantly lower levels of HbT when compared to the malignant lesions.

Lead researcher Qianqian Fang said that by providing additional differentiation of malignant and benign lesions, combined optical and X-ray imaging could potentially reduce unnecessary biopsies.

“We are hopeful that this combined system may help improve the efficiency and diagnostic accuracy of breast screening,” Fang said.