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'Mini' MRI Outperforms 3-D Mammograms In Detecting Cancer In Women With Dense Breasts


When it comes to detecting breast cancer, a new study published in JAMA finds there's a technique that's even more effective than 3D mammography. Researchers have documented that a new abbreviated MRI, which takes much less time than a traditional MRI, is better at detecting cancer in women with dense breast tissue. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Despite the advances in screening and treatment, about 40,000 women in the U.S. die each year from breast cancer. Christopher Comstock is a radiologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He says women at very high risk are often given MRIs to detect early cancers.

CHRISTOPHER COMSTOCK: We've always known MRI is the most powerful tool for breast cancer screening. But because it's very expensive and it takes 45 minutes to an hour, it really hasn't been feasible.

AUBREY: At least not for the wider population. But in recent years, a technique pioneered in Germany reduces the MRI time down to just eight to 10 minutes in the scanner. And Comstock and his collaborators wanted to see if the results of these mini MRIs were as good or better than the results of 3D mammograms. They recruited a bunch of participants, about 1,400 women.

COMSTOCK: So this trial looked at this concept in 48 centers in the United States to really see what its potential is.

AUBREY: The women in the study all had dense breast tissue, which is common. And Comstock says this can put a woman at higher risk of missing a cancer since the images produced by mammograms don't always pick them up.

COMSTOCK: The more dense the breast tissue, the more ability of cancer to hide in that tissue when you generate those images.

AUBREY: The new study found that the abbreviated MRI was significantly more effective.

COMSTOCK: It found almost 2 1/2 times as many cancers as the 3D mammography.

AUBREY: He says the shorter MRI seems to work well, and it could help reduce the cost.

COMSTOCK: If you can reduce the time to about a third - you know, you could do three patients an hour versus one with a conventional full MR - theoretically, we could get the cost down to a third the price.

AUBREY: Currently, not a lot of centers in the U.S. offer the abbreviated MRI for breast cancer screening. It's still a new concept. Phil Evans is director of the UT Southwestern Center for Breast Care in Dallas. He says women can ask their providers about it.

PHIL EVANS: It doesn't hurt to ask for it to see if it will be covered. But if a woman is at average risk or just has dense breasts, it's unlikely that it will be covered.

AUBREY: The new study may help change the conversation and possibly persuade some insurance companies to cover it.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYRIANA'S "THE TEMPLEHOF FILE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.