(Inside Science TV) -- For patients who have been diagnosed with cancer, one of the biggest fears is not knowing it their cancer has spread to other organs or areas of the body. To find out, patients must often go through invasive tests and surgery but now a new imaging technique is shining a light on cancer tumors and could help patients avoid unnecessary procedures.
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Meredith Parks, now a cancer survivor, said, "I was terrified that I was going to die." She also wanted to know if her cancer had spread beyond her breast.
Kristine Glunde, a biochemist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Samata Kakkad, a biomedical engineer are developing a laser technique that will help doctors identify if a patient's cancer is likely to spread and give patients this information without having to go through more procedures.
Glunde is specifically looking at the collagen fibers that surround and connect to cancer. She explains that the fibers have distinctive patterns that can be seen using advanced microscopes. “In an aggressive breast tumor, the collagen fibers have a different structure than in a not aggressive tumor, a benign tumor," said Glunde.
By shining laser light through the tissue across a biopsied tumor sample, the researchers uncover patterns in the collagen fibers. Dense, straight lines of fibers give the tumor a path that makes it more likely to spread throughout the body. Tumors with curly-shaped, less dense fibers are less likely to spread. Researchers found that eight women who had cancer spread beyond the breast through the body's lymphatic system had about 10 percent more densely packed, and straight lined, collagen fibers than six women with cancers that had not spread.
The new technique may help reassure breast cancer patients that their tumor is more likely to stay put, and help avoid unnecessary surgeries. Good news for Meredith, her cancer has not metastasized. "As far as we know, knock on wood, I’m in good shape," said Parks.