When a suspicious lump is detected in the breast, women typically submit to a painful biopsy and a stressful wait for the results. Sungheon Gene Kim, PhD, a researcher in NYU Langone’s Department of Radiology, has developed a novel approach to imaging that he hopes will not only speed up the diagnostic process, but also improve its accuracy. Using a method called gradient-echo spectroscopic imaging, a kind of MRI that assesses the chemical content of body tissues, Dr. Kim showed for the first time that saturated fatty acids in breast adipose tissue can indicate the presence of cancer.
Dr. Kim had long wondered whether women with breast cancer might have a different composition of fat tissue. “There had not been any study to see whether differences can be detected within diagnostic breast MRI exams,” he says, even though obese women or those with a higher body mass index tend to have higher rates of breast cancer. Dr. Kim and his team recruited 89 women at high risk, one-third of whom were postmenopausal. All of them were scanned with an MRI.
During the last five minutes of the routine clinical MRI exam, gradient-echo spectroscopic imaging was used to assess breast fat composition. Various types of fatty acids, including saturated fatty acids, were identifiable by their distinct patterns of chemical shift, revealed by the newly developed imaging method. The results, published in the journal Radiology, showed that the breast adipose tissue of postmenopausal women with invasive cancer had a higher concentration of saturated fatty acids than that of cancer-free women.
To confirm the link between saturated fatty acids and invasive breast cancer, and to understand the diagnostic role of saturated fatty acids, Dr. Kim plans to repeat his study with a larger group that includes both low-risk and high-risk patients. He also wants to study the link between breast adipose tissue composition and established risk factors for breast cancer, hoping to understand how saturated fatty acids may contribute to breast cancer development and growth.