Nancy Cappello was proactive. When she turned 36, she had a baseline mammogram, a standard medical recommendation in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a comparison tool for future screenings. At 40, Cappello started getting them annually.
Her breast surgeon estimated the cancer had been festering for four to five years under the radar of her annual mammograms.
Six weeks after her 11th-consecutive normal mammogram, she was diagnosed with Stage IIIc breast cancer.
A doctor felt a lump while doing a breast exam during her annual physical and a subsequent ultrasound detected cancer that had spread to 13 lymph nodes. That's when Cappello, then 51, learned she had dense breast tissue, making mammography less likely to detect tumors in her breasts.
She also discovered through her own research that she was among the 40 to 50 percent of women with dense breast tissue — almost half the female population — but medical protocol did not require physicians to inform women of their dense tissue status. If she had known, she said, she would have gotten an ultrasound every year in addition to a mammogram that could have detected the cancer much earlier. Cappello said her breast surgeon estimated the cancer had been festering for four to five years under the radar of her annual mammograms.
Although ultrasound as a cancer screening tool has been available for decades, technological advances are helping doctors find more invasive cancers in women with dense breasts, in turn giving women who know their tissue status the opportunity for earlier detection and treatment.
"We know that the gold standard for breast cancer screening is mammography, but in women with dense breast tissue, up to one third of breast cancers can be missed with this modality alone."
Dr. Georgia Giakoumis Spear, chief of the department of breast imaging at NorthShore University HealthSystem in suburban Chicago and assistant professor of radiology at the University of Chicago, has been a leader in developing standards for the use of new ultrasound technology. She is leading a study to develop more specific national guidelines around the use of Automated Whole Breast Tissue Ultrasound (ABUS), a non-invasive procedure in which sound waves are used to scan breast tissue while a patient lies on her back with her arm over her head.
Approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2012, ABUS provides higher quality 3D images and faster delivery to provide more accurate results than past ultrasound technology. The scan does not involve radiation, and a practitioner can complete the process in 15 to 20 minutes, from patient preparation to image creation. NorthShore has been using ABUS since 2015, Dr. Spear said, and the technology can improve breast cancer detection in women with dense breasts by up to 55 percent.
"We know that the gold standard for breast cancer screening is mammography, but in women with dense breast tissue, up to one third of breast cancers can be missed with this modality alone," Spear says. "And when we supplement screening with ultrasound in this population of women, we have found a large number of cancers by ultrasound that are not visible on the mammogram."
Mammography should still be used as the first step for breast cancer detection, but if an initial mammogram shows that a patient has dense breast tissue, studies encourage discussion of additional screening with ultrasound.
On a mammogram, dense tissue appears white. So do cancerous masses, making them easy to miss.
A radiologist determines tissue density, according to the American College of Radiology's Breast Imaging Reporting and Data System (BI-RADS). "A" and "B" breast density categories designate ratios of mostly fatty, or non-dense tissues, while the "C" and "D" categories designate heterogeneously dense and extremely dense tissue, respectively. Such patients would be classified as having dense tissue. Younger women, women with lower levels of body fat and women undergoing hormone therapy are more likely to have C and D breast density.
On a mammogram, dense tissue appears white. So do cancerous masses, making them easy to miss. Fatty tissue, in comparison, appears black, making tumors easier to spot.
The FDA stated among its policy goals for 2018 that it's placing an improved focus on recognizing technological advances to help "ensure women get the most relevant, up-to-date information about their breast density, which is now recognized as a risk factor for breast cancer." An article in the March 2018 Journal of the American College of Radiology recommended supplemental screening for women with higher-than-average breast cancer risk, placing women with dense breast tissue in that category.
To be sure, some in the medical community are reluctant to push for ultrasounds, saying that a mammogram might be enough even if the woman has dense breast tissue. A patient is advised to discuss the option of ultrasound with her physician and they can decide from there.
Access to such information became political for Cappello after her diagnosis in 2004. She said that as she underwent six surgeries, a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and hormone therapy, she asked doctors why they weren't required to inform women of their dense breast tissue status. Her dissatisfaction with their responses led to the formation of Are You Dense, Inc., an advocacy group aimed to inform women of their medical options while working to pass legislation mandating that women know their tissue status. Other legislation has focused on mandating insurance coverage for breast ultrasounds.
Cappello's work led Connecticut to become the first state to pass an information law in 2009, and 35 states now have similar requirements. Depending on the state, the law could mandate that certain language or information about breast density be included in the patient's mammogram results, or require physicians to tell women about dense tissue if their breast density falls in the BI-RADS categories C and D. Other states might require that patients be given general information about breast density and advice to discuss their options with a physician. (Note: There is a chart on Cappello's website that shows what laws exist – or don't – in each state.)
Through her site and social media, she's connected with other women who've lobbied for laws in their states, including Dr. Spear, who recently testified before legislative committees in Illinois as they considered companion bills. The Illinois legislation is expected to be signed into law this summer.
"There should be no excuses," Cappello says. "Women should have this information. There should be no concealing or hiding of her status."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”