Hutchinson Center researchers want to improve patients’ lives not just in the U.S. but also around the globe
By Justin Matlick, Hutchinson Center science writer
Dr. Connie Lehman has spent her career revolutionizing how we detect breast cancer. For instance, Lehman—who specializes in radiology and imaging—helped find ways to use MRI to detect breast cancer in its earliest stages, when most women can still be cured. But as she has watched detection breakthroughs improve outcomes in the U.S., she has puzzled over how to bring these same advances to developing countries.
“Here in the U.S., we can essentially cure many breast cancer patients when we catch it really early,” Lehman says, “But in developing countries where they can’t afford these technologies, we don’t see the disease until its late stages, when it always ends in death.”
This month, Lehman took what might be a key step toward bridging this gap. Using seed funding she won in a grant competition sponsored by GE, Lehman launched a pilot project to improve breast cancer detection in Uganda. Working through the Uganda Cancer Institute / Hutchinson Center Cancer Alliance, Lehman and her colleagues are going to train Ugandan health care providers to use ultrasound to diagnose breast cancer. Patients with suspicious lumps will be referred to the Uganda Cancer Institute.
This move toward ultrasound represents a shift away from attempts to introduce mammography, which has been extraordinarily successful in developed nations, in countries with fewer resources.
“In developing countries, ultrasound has so many advantages over mammography,” Lehman says. “It’s cheaper, it’s portable, it’s much easier to use and it doesn’t involve radiation.”
Finding affordable technology is only one part of the puzzle. Lehman’s project also tests whether an awareness campaign can make Ugandan women more willing to be screened for breast cancer, and to see a doctor when they suspect they have the disease.
“Right now, there’s no reason for these women to come forward because they don’t see breast cancer as curable,” Lehman says.
The project is in its initial stages; Lehman expects to have preliminary results within a year. If the program proves successful, she hopes that it can be scaled up, providing a potential model for improving breast cancer detection—and, more importantly, survival—across the developing world.
“I’m very lucky to work in a community of researchers that has a passion for improving patients’ lives not just here, but around the globe,” Lehman says, “and we’re really excited to see whether this project can make a real difference.”