A research team from Chalmers, a university in Sweden, has developed new techniques of cancer diagnosis and treatment with the aid of microwaves, which could play a pioneering role in the battle against cancer. These techniques could save many lives and are more effective, less invasive and simpler than currently available alternatives. Clinical studies are now being planned.

The Chalmers team expects to be able to test two different techniques on patients within the next six months. One method is an alternative to mammography, i.e. using X-rays to detect breast cancer. The other aims to treat tumours in the head and neck by heating the cancer cells.

Microwaves can be used to create medical images – a new technique known as microwave tomography. Andreas Fhager, Associate Professor of Biomedical Electromagnetics, has developed a system to detect breast cancer with the new technique. He points out that the method has several advantages over mammography.

“We obtain three-dimensional images showing significantly better contrast between healthy and malignant tissue compared to X-rays. That makes it easier to detect even really small tumours that may currently be obscured by healthy tissue, thus creating the preconditions for much more reliable diagnosis.”

“Unlike X-rays, the technique also emits negligible doses of non-ionising radiation – less than a hundredth of the radiation to which you are exposed when talking on a mobile phone.”

The idea is to use the technique in conjunction with a treatment couch, equipped with holes for the breasts, to which the thirty or so antennas required by the examination are connected. It should be considerably more comfortable for patients than mammography. The method is also much less expensive, not only because microwave equipment is not so costly, but also because the clearer images make interpretation easier for the doctors.

In the second Chalmers project, the microwaves are actually used to destroy the tumours by heating them, a process known as hyperthermia. Clinical studies have shown that treatment with conventional radiotherapy and chemotherapy in combination with hyperthermia may double the long-term ability to cure certain forms of cancer, such as cervical cancer and soft-tissue sarcoma.

“We are now developing a new hyperthermia system that can reach deep-seated tumours in the head and neck with high accuracy,” says Hana Dobšíček Trefná, a PhD in Biomedical Engineering. “In this way, higher temperatures can be reached in the tumour without affecting the surrounding tissue.”