New project to revolutionise detection of breast cancer using ultrasound imaging

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Image of a breast scan with tumour

Imperial College London researchers are supplying imaging know-how from methods used in Earth Science to new technique for breast cancer imaging.

A new European project called ‘QUSTom’ (Quantitative Ultrasound Stochastic Tomography), aims to introduce a revolutionary medical imaging technique based on ultrasound and supercomputing. The imaging will complement or even replace current techniques that use X-rays such as mammograms for breast cancer detection. This technology does not use any type of radiation, and so removes any risks associated with X-rays. It will also offer a superior image quality and better monitoring of tumours, among other advantages. 

My research focuses on the use of full-waveform inversion (FWI), a geophysical technique commonly used to model images of the inside of the Earth. Here, we are adapting this advanced technique and using it in medical imaging. Dr Calderon Agudo Principal Investigator, Qustom

Dr Oscar Calderon Agudo, Principal Investigator of the project at Imperial and Imperial College Research Fellow in the Department of Earth Science and Engineering says: “My research focuses on the use of full-waveform inversion (FWI), a geophysical technique commonly used to model images of the inside of the Earth. Here, we are adapting this advanced technique and using it in medical imaging.” 

To obtain the medical images, researchers will develop mathematical algorithms that can show not only the image of the patient's tissue, but also its associated uncertainty, which shows, pixel by pixel, how reliable the information is. The project also incorporates concepts such as multimodal imaging and real 3D imaging, which is an unprecedented combination in ultrasound breast imaging.  

These algorithms used to reconstruct high-resolution ultrasound images of the breast will be inspired by research performed at Imperial and elsewhere, such as in Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC), in the last 20 to 30 years to get high-quality images of the Earth's subsurface using seismic data.  

"QUSTom is a unique opportunity to develop and clinically validate a transformative breast ultrasound imaging technology that is affordable, quantitative, universal, pain-free and easy to operate, with unprecedented image resolution comparable to MRI. This revolution comes from the integration of supercomputing, wave-based imaging algorithms and an extraordinary imaging device," says Dr Calderon Agudo. 

Interdisciplinary experts

The project brings together physicists, engineers, operational experts and radiologists who will work together to develop the breast cancer diagnostic tools, from a consortium of five organisations: Karlsruher Institut für Technologie, Vall d'Hebron Research Institute - VHIR, Arctur and the BSC, and Imperial College London spin-off FrontWave Imaging, which is aligned with the objectives of this project, as well as Imperial itself as an Associated Partner.  

The project coordinator and BSC researcher, Dr Josep de la Puente says: "QUSTom poses an excellent opportunity to bring ultrasound imaging to the next level. Interestingly enough, the revolution that we propose comes not just from an extraordinary imaging device, but from the imaging algorithms used to generate unprecedented ultrasound images. Images that we can fairly compare to those obtained with MRI”.  

The process of understanding, interpreting and configuring the images as a new diagnostic tool will be carried out by the team of Breast Imaging Radiologists from the Women's Radiology Service at Vall d'Hebron Hospital.  "The development of this new technology will be carried out within the framework of the multimodal assessment that the team performs in the clinical care process as an integral part of the diagnosis and monitoring of breast cancer, all in the context of the Breast Pathology Unit," highlights Ana Rodríguez-Arana, head of the Women's Radiology Service at the Vall d'Hebron Hospital. 

QUSTom has been selected to take part in the first call of the Pathfinder Open programme of the European Innovation Council (EIC), funded by the European Union's Horizon Europe Framework Programme, which aims to support disruptive ideas and projects with great international potential. The project has been awarded with 2,744,300 euros over 2 years, and is one of 56 projects selected by the European Commission out of a total of 868 projects. 

Ultrasound to revolutionize diagnosis of the most common tumour 

Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed type of tumour in the world, with 2.3 million women diagnosed in 2020 and 700,000 deaths due to this disease that same year. Early detection is therefore essential, since, if successful, survival at 5 years after diagnosis is as high as 90%. 

Mammography is one of the most widely used methods to detect breast cancer and has saved millions of lives. However, studies claim that it can give false positives showing a possible tumour that is not found later in the screening phase. Additionally, screening sensitivity decreases with mammographic density, making it difficult to detect breast cancer in patients with dense breasts, which normally have a higher incidence of breast cancer than women with fatty breasts. "We are very ambitious and plan for validation of the technology within the project's lifetime. We are also working on a roadmap towards its actual exploitation, we don't want this technology sitting in the lab,” says BSC researcher Josep de la Puente. 


Hui Jia

Hui Jia
Department of Earth Science & Engineering

Victoria Murphy

Victoria Murphy
Institute of Global Health Innovation