Radiology Professor Etta Pisano will oversee the study, which will be conducted at 19 research facilities. The study will compare the digital and film mammograms of almost 50,000 women in hopes of helping doctors detect cancer earlier.
Digital mammography has not yet been used widely to detect breast cancer. "Mammography is one of the most important tools we have," Pisano said. "Without mammography, many more women would die of breast cancer than do."
Beginning Oct. 15, researchers will use four digital mammography systems to take both a digital and a film mammogram under nearly identical conditions. Patients then will be monitored for a year, so there will be no results from the study for at least three years, Pisano said.
Only two of the four digital systems will be used at UNC -- one made by Fischer Imaging and the other by Fuji, said Gene Johnston, a physicist in the Department of Radiology.
The two machines will be used only on women without any symptoms.
Pisano said this research was funded by the National Cancer Institute, which awarded $26.5 million to research institutions in the United States and Canada, including the universities of California, Massachusetts and Washington.
Joseph Lee, chairman of UNC's Department of Radiology, said this grant is important because digital mammography is a developing field. "In the last 10 years, significant advances have been made in digital photography," he said.
Pisano cautioned that while the study is investigating new technology, it should not undermine the value of traditional mammograms. She warned that there is a tendency to get caught up in the hype surrounding new technology, even though the new digital images could prove to be inferior to film technology.
"We don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water -- just because it's new doesn't make it better," she said.
For example, Pisano said smaller images are easier to see on film mammograms than on digital ones.
But there is potential for improvement. Pisano said early data indicates that the digital images will have better contrast and fewer false positives, and will allow doctors to e-mail the results to colleagues for second opinions.
Pisano said the researchers also will examine the cost-effectiveness of the digital technology because film machines only cost about $100,000, compared to the $300,000 to $500,000 price tag for a new digital machine.
Pisano said researchers need to be cautious before eliminating film mammography, which is one of the most important tools doctors have to fight cancer. "We don't want to take a step back."
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