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Cancer Research Month: A Physicist’s Determination to Improve Breast Cancer Screenings & Diagnostics

Dr. Ileana Hancu. Researcher at GE’s Global Research Center (GRC).

Dr. Ileana Hancu. Researcher at GE’s Global Research Center (GRC).

May is National Cancer Research Month, a time to recognize the high-quality, innovative cancer research that takes place all around the world and the dedicated researchers, who dedicate their lives to finding new and alternative ways to prevent and cure cancer.

More than 60% of world’s total new annual cases occur in Africa, Asia and Central and South America. These regions account for 70% of the world’s cancer deaths. Cancers figure among the leading causes of death worldwide, accounting for 8.2 million deaths in 2012.1

One of these researchers is Ileana Hancu. Her work at GE’s Global Research Center (GRC) continues to make significant strides thanks to the technological innovations and the pioneering approaches in the fight against cancer.  Dr. Hancu’s research takes on a more personal meaning after a screening for breast cancer left her convinced there was room for improvement.

Following the discovery of a lump in her breast, Dr Hancu needed to undergo a biopsy. However, the surgeon couldn’t find any suitable area to sample and sent her for additional tests. It was only after an MRI scan that a decision to that no further diagnostic workup was necessary.  Dr Hancu was fine but had endured a prolonged period of worry and stress.

“In my case it was nothing, it was just a scare that took a month,” Dr Hancu said. “But it made me realize that the way things are right now, even though we have so many imaging tools, we are not as good as we could be.”2

Dr Hancu believes her research could aid those women for whom mammograms can often prove inconclusive, such as those who have dense breasts. Breast screenings employ the use of mammograms, which work well for women with fatty or small breasts.  The mammograms appear transparent with any abnormalities usually showing up well. However, women with dense breasts (breasts primarily made up of glandular tissue) often will result in mammogram images that appear milky and opaque making it harder for the physician to analyze and interpret and sometimes require further diagnostic imaging to aid the radiologist in interpretation.

This is where Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) comes in. It is a technique which uses magnetic fields rather than radiation to create an image of the breast and has been proven to be good at picking up any abnormal tissue. MRI has been used for breast cancer diagnosis, but standard MRI images may result in too many false positives that subsequent biopsies confirm to be benign.  Dr. Hancu’s research focuses on developing techniques that enable a physician  to see smaller lesions, and clarify whether the positive MRI findings are true cancers or false alarms.

Dr. Hancu and her collaborator, Professor Robert Lenkinski from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, have been awarded a five-year, $3.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for their work. The next step is to enter patients onto a clinical trial to test the technology. The hope is to gain further insight into its future use in breast cancer diagnosis.

Dr Hancu believes that in her case, learning is not restricted to the classroom. “If you end up developing an imaging technique that will help save people from having biopsies, if you can develop a technique that can tell you with certitude whether you have cancer or not, I think that’s the final measure of success,” Hancu said. “I measure success by making an impact on somebody’s life.”2


Screening refers to tests and exams used to find a disease. Breast cancers found during screening exams are more likely to be smaller and still confined to the breast.



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More Information

Global Research Center

GE Healthcare – Magnetic Resonance Imaging

American Association for Cancer Research