A hand-held ‘radar’ used by NHS surgeons to detect hidden tumour cells may prevent thousands of breast cancer patients from a relapse.
The new device has halved the need for repeat surgery among women on whom it was used.
Previously patients faced an agonising wait while lab tests were carried out to discover if all cancer cells had been removed.
But the MarginProbe System, used while the patient is on the operating table, takes as little as five minutes to give results.
Almost 60 per cent of the 50,000 Britons diagnosed with breast cancer each year undergo a lumpectomy, where, unlike a mastectomy in which the entire breast is removed, only the diseased portion is taken away.
But research shows that further surgery is required in 25 to 30 per cent of patients because cancer cells are later found at the edges of the removed tissue.
During a lumpectomy, the tumour is cut away along with some of the apparently healthy tissue around it, known as a margin. This is then sent to a lab and tested.
If no cancerous cells are discovered, it is deemed to be a ‘negative margin’. However, if cancerous cells are found in the margin, a second operation must be carried out to remove more tissue, and some women may potentially face a full mastectomy after all.
The pen-like MarginProbe gives surgeons an accurate way to detect potential cancer cells hiding in otherwise healthy-looking tissue around a tumour.
Professor Nigel Bundred, professor of surgical oncology at the University Hospital of South Manchester, said: ‘Research shows that using it to scan the surface of the tissue during surgery, rather than sending it off to a lab, can reduce the need for second operations by more than 50 per cent.
‘It could be a major advance and lead to a reduction in the number of repeat operations.’
The MarginProbe emits the same kind of radiofrequency waves found in radar signals.
The device measures the amount of energy that is absorbed or reflected from the tissue. As cancerous and healthy cells absorb and reflect energy at different rates, computer software can distinguish between the two.
In about five minutes, the software provides the surgeon with detailed information to help decide whether additional tissue should be removed, or whether to complete the lumpectomy procedure and close the incision.
Surgeons at the University Hospital of South Manchester NHS Foundation Trust, and six other breast cancer centres in the UK, are treating about 500 women with the new technology in a study to assess its usefulness and cost effectiveness.
While this is the first UK study, research carried out in America has demonstrated that using the MarginProbe System can be highly effective.
A trial reported to the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium compared re-operation rates in about 300 breast cancer patients undergoing a lumpectomy, of which 150 procedures used the MarginProbe.
When the probe was used, re-operation rates dropped by 51 per cent, from 39.7 per cent to 14.6 per cent. In a type of breast cancer known as ductal carcinoma in situ, the re-operation rate was reduced from 66.7 per cent to 23.1 per cent.