If women heed the American Cancer Society's recommendation to have a mammogram before age 40, and frequently thereafter, to look for early signs of breast cancer, there will be a sharp rise in the number of tests performed. Already, there's concern over a shortage of radiologists capable of fathoming the often complicated pictures--and over missed diagnoses resulting from flawed readings.
Biomedical engineer Isaac N. Bankman of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory has a potential solution. His team, working with radiologist William R. Brody and other Hopkins physicians, has developed computer software capable of scanning mammograms and spotting clusters of tiny lumps, known as microcalcifications. Not all clusters are cancerous, so the system analyzes each one to see if it fits known patterns for malignancy. In early tests, it was able to pick out the same ominous lumps spied by the Hopkins doctors. "We are not going to replace the radiologist," says Bankman. "But the goal--and so far, the preliminary results achieve this goal--is to do as well as the most expert radiologist."