A minute endoscope, less than 1mm in diameter, presents a new opportunity for the early detection of breast cancer. The research team included Hollywood film technicians who worked alongside Dr Nicolas Beechey-Newham and colleagues from the Imperial Cancer Research Fund's clinical oncology unit at Guy's Hospital in London to produce the "micro-camera".
The camera - small enough to enter the opening in a nipple - is able to view the lining of the milk ducts from the inside to determine the presence of cancerous cells before they spread beyond the ducts. Images are relayed to television screens from which doctors can evaluate cells for the presence of pre-malignant changes. If abnormalities are spotted, biopsy of the affected area can then take place.
Doctors have speculated the new endoscope may allow cancer to be identified long before it becomes physically detectable in the form of a lump. They believe that, within the next few years, introduction of the new technique may make it possible to prevent breast cancer by improved screening of high-risk groups of women.
Further developments currently underway may allow the collection of cells from abnormal areas using the endoscope, avoiding the need for biopsy altogether. Although general anaesthetic has been used so far, it is also likely that the procedure may soon be possible with local anaesthetic. Pre-cancerous cells have already been identified in four women who had symptoms such as nipple discharge.