PROMISING: The department’s head physician, Thorbjorn Dahl, demonstrates how disease in the carotid arteries can be detected with the new technology. Photo: Gorm Kallestad/Scanpix

Finding cancer early

New ultrasound technology will make it possible for doctors to discover cancer tumors far earlier than before.

A method that transmits new and more advanced ultrasound signals is being tested in Trondheim. The chances of discovering and diagnosing tumors in the prostate and breast will hopefully improve significantly.

“The first clinical testing has been done, and the results so far are promising,” says Rune Hansen, a researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and at SINTEF Health Research.

A veil of noise

The ultrasound images that are processed using current methods are often strongly hampered by a kind of noise that originates from sound signals that move back and forth between reflectors that are dissimilar in strength. This is called ‘multiple echo’ or ‘reverberations’ in technical terms. This is particularly a problem when the signal is being sent through the ‘body wall’ in order to image internal organs in the body.

The sound signals ricochet back and forth between layers of fat, muscles and connective tissue in the body wall, and this results in misty ultrasound images.

The new method that is being processed is far more detailed, and it will be possible to distinguish details in parts of the body such as the liver, prostate and breast. This makes it easier to discover changes in body tissue, and the chance of discovering cancer tumors at an early stage will increase significantly.

Detailed images

In addition to giving more detailed images of body tissue, the new ultrasound method is also much better at discovering and reading contrast agents. Such liquid is given intravenously and this makes perfusion imaging possible in organs that are suspected of being cancerous.

“Tumors generate their own blood vessels in order to obtain sufficient oxygen and nutrients so they are able to grow. This method has the potential to discover these changes in microcirculation much earlier than at present,” says Rune Hansen.

The new method will potentially make it possible to discover several forms of cancer at an earlier stage, for example prostate, breast and thyroid gland cancer. Another important area of application is the diagnosis of cardiovascular diseases like heart diseases and plaque/stenoses/aneurysms in large arteries.

Transmission in two signals

The newly developed method has been given the name ‘SURF imaging’ – Second order UltRasound Field imaging.

The traditional method uses an imaging pulse, and the subsequent ‘echo’ that is heard is the basis of the ultrasound image. The important new factor is that the imaging pulse is accompanied by another signal.

Rune Hansen is a part of a team under Professor Bjørn Angelsen, who is one of the pioneers of ultrasound research in Trondheim. Professor Angelsen assumes that the method will be ready for normal use on the first patients in about a year’s time.

By Tore Oksholen