Just when you think nothing really changes in the breast cancer world something marvelous happens.
Did you hear about 17-year-old Britteny Wegner who recently won the top prize in Google’s Science Fair? She taught a computer to do something that will speed breast cancer diagnoses using the most minimally invasive biopsy technique: Fine Needle Aspiration.
Why is this nifty bit of computer code writing so spectacular?
In 1998 when I found a big lump in my left breast I hightailed into my primary care doctor’s office. I’d wanted to see my OB-GYN but his crappy office staff would not give me an appointment sooner than 2 weeks out. When I saw my PCP the next day he performed a fine needle aspiration right there in the office and it was no big deal. A tiny needle just sucked a few cells from several spots in the lump and off to the lab it went.
The results came back inconclusive, a common finding. The PCP sent me to the surgeon for a consult where I had yet another fine needle aspiration. I also had my first mammogram and an ultrasound. Once again, the results were inconclusive. The surgeon gave me a choice. Wait, watch and repeat the testing in 3 months or have a more invasive procedure called an Excisional Biopsy. I made my choice purely based on a gut feeling. A few weeks later they cut out the lump and scooted it down to the pathologist while I was still on the table.
“You have breast cancer,” said the surgeon.
All I could manage to say was “oh, shit” before they knocked me out completely and proceeded to do more snipping to ensure all of the tumor margins were clean.
It took more than 1 month from the time I had the first fine needle aspiration until diagnosis. The following week I had to return for another surgery. Axillary node dissection. Remember folks this was 1998 and sentinel node biopsy was still not the standard of care. Had Ms. Britteny Wegner’s computer program been available, not only would I have had a quicker diagnosis, I’d have had fewer biopsies and surgical procedures.
Fine needle aspiration is cheap, easy and quick. The program that analyzes tissue samples, designed by this high school girl, is 99.1% accurate and as the data set continues to grow, the accuracy improves. With tweaks to the code, other types of cancer identification improvements may also be possible.
Congrats to Britteny. I hope she uses the $50,000 college scholarship to continue her work. We need more kids like this one.