A computer trained to spot small breast cancers that the human eye often fails to see in X-rays is coming on line at the University of Chicago, according to Dr. Maryellen L. Giger, one of its creators.
"It's like a second opinion," Giger said, adding that the instrument -called an intelligent mammography work station - has already analyzed more than 1,000 breast X-rays, or mammograms.The computer isn't a replacement for the radiologists who normally interpret X-ray images. Instead, the computer is intended as a backup, capable of pointing out possible cancers that may be too small to detect by other methods.
Dr. Barbara Smith of the Breast Health Center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston said the technology should be especially useful in analyzing mammograms of younger women, which are often difficult to interpret.
"The picture can be a snowstorm, and what doctors are looking for is a grain of salt," Smith said.
In typical screening programs, only about five cancers are found for every 1,000 patients. However, because of the difficulty of reading the X-rays, 10 percent to 30 percent of tumors are missed.
Giger said her group had the computer read mammograms of women whose cancers had been overlooked but who were later found to have the disease. The computer found half of the previously undetected cancers.
Giger hopes the scanners - which may cost $100,000 each - will be available commercially later this year.
A similar technology is being developed to help doctors interpret chest X-rays.