A Better Way to Detect Breast Cancer

In his work to develop better imaging devices that can be used to produce high-resolution magnetic resonance images for breast cancer detection, ECE professor Reinhold Ludwig thinks of diagnosing and staging the disease. “If you can see the early onset of cancer,” he says, “you can be more successful. You get personally involved. It’s not enhancing a missile control system. It’s enhancing a person’s life.”

Years of developing and refining special purpose coils and resonators for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners have given Ludwig ample opportunity to observe the mysteries of life—from the first speck of cancer in a human breast to the signature of fear in a rodent brain. In each case, he employs his engineering perspective to improve the underlying magnetic resonance hardware to generate better images.

In MRI, a combination of a powerful magnetic field, so-called gradient fields, and radio frequency (RF) fields—all produced by magnetic coils—are exploited to obtain signal responses from the stimulated hydrogen nuclei in the human body. These responses are processed to form highly detailed anatomical images of soft tissue. Ludwig’s RF coils are designed to enhance the imaging capability of existing MRI instruments by targeting specific regions in a human patient or in a lab animal.

His patented breast coil is anatomically shaped to focus the imaging capability on just the breast and surrounding tissues. When two of the coils are interfaced into standard MRI scanners, they can simultaneously create high-resolution images of both breasts, along with the underarm lymph nodes, which are not visible in typical mammograms but need to be checked for the possible spread of cancer.

There is growing evidence that MRI is more accurate than mammography, but it is currently too expensive for routine cancer screening. (MRI breast exams are usually ordered only after a possible cancer has been detected with mammography.) Ludwig says his RF coil concept, which focuses the MRI scan on a limited area of the body, could speed up the MRI exam, making it less costly. In addition, the images obtained with his imaging coils are far superior in resolution and coverage when compared with existing RF coils in clinical MRI instruments.