Newer and Experimental Breast Imaging Tests

Newer types of tests are being developed for breast imaging. Some of these are already being used in certain situations, while others are still being studied. It will take time to see if any are as good as or better than those used today.

A newer type of mammogram is known as breast tomosynthesis or 3D mammography. For this test, a machine takes many low-dose x-rays as it moves over the breast. A computer then puts the images together into a 3-dimensional picture. For more on this test, see Mammogram Basics.

Optical imaging tests pass light into the breast and then measure the light that returns or passes through the tissue. The technique does not use radiation and does not require breast compression. Studies going on now are looking at combining optical imaging with other tests like MRI, ultrasound, or 3D mammography to help look for breast cancer.

Molecular breast imaging (MBI) is a newer nuclear medicine imaging test for the breast. A radioactive chemical is injected into the blood, and a special camera is used to see it in the breast. This test is being studied mainly as a way to follow up breast problems (such as a lump or an abnormal mammogram). It’s also being studied as a test that can be used along with mammograms to look for cancer in women with dense breasts. One potential drawback is that it exposes the whole body to radiation, so it’s unlikely this test would be used for screening every year.

Positron Emission Mammography (PEM) is a newer imaging test of the breast. A form of sugar attached to a radioactive particle is injected into the blood to detect cancer cells. The PEM scanner is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Working much like a PET scan, a PEM scan may be better able to detect small clusters of cancer cells within the breast. Right now it’s being studied in women with breast cancer or other breast problems to see if it can show which lumps are cancer. As with MBI, it exposes the whole body to radiation, so it’s unlikely to be a test that could be used every year for breast cancer screening.

Electrical impedance imaging (EIT) scans the breast for electrical conductivity. It’s based on the idea that breast cancer cells conduct electricity differently from normal cells. The test passes a very small electrical current through the breast and then detects it on the skin of the breast. This is done using small electrodes that are taped to the skin. EIT does not use radiation or compress the breasts. This test is approved by the FDA to help classify tumors found on mammograms. But at this time there hasn’t been enough clinical testing to use it for breast cancer screening.

Elastography is a test that can be done as part of an ultrasound exam. It’s based on the idea that breast cancers tend to be firmer and stiffer than the surrounding breast tissue. For this test, the breast is compressed slightly, and the ultrasound can show how firm a suspicious area is. This test could be useful in telling if the area is more likely to be cancer or a benign (non-cancerous) tumor. 

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Medical Review: September 1, 2017 Last Revised: October 9, 2017

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