International prize for ‘no needles’ breast cancer diagnosis technique

International prize for ‘no needles’ breast cancer diagnosis technique

Marleen Kerssens in front of the poster that she was presenting on Sunday evening in Kansas City.
A PhD student co-funded by STFC has won a prestigious award for demonstrating that a technique developed originally at STFC’s Central Laser Facility could take away the need for a needle biopsy in breast cancer diagnosis. Marleen Kerssens, also funded by the Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has shown that SORS (spatially offset Raman spectroscopy), a method using a laser to see inside objects without making an incision, is viable for detecting if abnormalities found through mammograms are malignant or benign. Currently a needle biopsy is the only way to confirm this. Marleen received the Coblentz Society Student Award, an international prize to recognise young scientists in the area of vibrational spectroscopy, at a conference in Kansas City, USA last night (Sunday 30 September 2012). 

The team Marleen is working in at the Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has used the SORS method to look at the molecular fingerprints of breast calcifications. The technique involves bouncing light off of the tiny grains of breast tissue and measuring the light scattered at different colours to pick up their molecular signatures which indicate if a cancer is present. This research has shown a correlation between the signature and the type of cancer present and Marleen’s work is also looking at how these calcifications form. Currently the abnormalities are seen on mammograms in the form of dots and shadows but can only be identified as malignant or benign through a needle biopsy – the next step. This involves a cut through the skin and tissue and an anxious wait by patients for their results, and in 70-90 percent of cases the calcifications turn out to be benign. Work by Marleen and her team at the Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust could lead in the next decade, to the biopsy being replaced by a non-invasive screening with instantaneous results. The technique, however, still needs a lot of refinement.

Cancer surgeon at the Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Professor Hugh Barr, said:  “Marleen is an outstanding translational scientist who has been able to bring vibrational spectroscopy from the laboratory to a potential invaluable clinical diagnostic instrument for patients with breast disease. As a result of her work we now have the prospect of real-time non-invasive diagnosis. She is truly deserving of this great honour and will bring nothing but credit to the Coblentz Society”. 

Marleen added: ”I am honoured to receive this award and for the recognition given by the Coblentz Society for my work. It is a great opportunity to bring this research, with potential for future clinical impact for breast cancer diagnostics, into the spotlight.”

Pavel Matousek from STFC’s Central Laser Facility based in the Research Complex at Harwell who originally developed the SORS technique will also be given an award this week in Kansas City – he is being awarded a fellowship of the Society for Applied Spectroscopy in recognition of his outstanding service to the field of spectroscopy.

He says: 

“This is a well deserved international recognition for Marleen – she put great effort into her research and studies over the last three years that laid firm foundations for the development of a novel non-invasive breast cancer diagnostic tool. For myself, I am just delighted to be part of this exciting field of research that has so much potential in so many different areas of society”.

The team is currently working with real samples of excised breast tissue but it is expected to be a decade before this technique could be used routinely in hospitals.