3d illustration of breast cancer.
A 3D illustration of breast cancer

Hawaiʻi’s breast cancer incidence rate is nearly 10% higher than that of the U.S. as a whole. Breast cancer affects thousands of families across the islands, with more than 1,200 cases diagnosed each year in Hawaiʻi. Individuals with a family history of breast cancer are at even higher risk for the disease, and will often receive mammograms and breast examinations more frequently than others.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has awarded $3 million to a University of Hawaiʻi cancer researcher and his colleague to identify ways to improve breast cancer imaging analysis in order to reduce unnecessary biopsies. Biopsies are conducted to determine whether lesions detected through mammograms are malignant (cancerous) or benign (non- cancerous). In the U.S., 71% of biopsies do not result in a breast cancer diagnosis.

John Shepherd
John Shepherd

“A biopsy is an invasive procedure, so we want to minimize its need,” said John Shepherd, professor at the UH Cancer Center, who is leading the new public impact study with University of Chicago Professor Maryellen L. Giger. “In this study, we’ll use complex images to determine the composition of breast lesions, which will allow us to more effectively pinpoint those who would actually benefit from a biopsy.”

Malignant breast tissue has a lipid/water/protein (LWP) makeup that is different from that of benign tissue. For this project, investigators will measure the LWP structure of suspicious breast lesions in addition to analyzing the results from a typical 3D mammogram. Researchers hope to better understand how new technologies can be combined with existing screening methods to detect breast cancer more effectively.

Researchers say the NCI award indicates the study’s significance to the people of Hawaiʻi and the U.S.

“We’re so grateful to receive this kind of support from the NCI, and we are looking forward to improving screening methods for a disease that affects so many women,” added Shepherd.

This is an example of UH Mānoa’s goal of Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), one of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.