06 July 2016

Researchers investigate broader role for breast scans

Linked data, provided by WA Health’s Data Linkage Branch, will be used to help a team of WA researchers determine whether mammograms (x-rays of the breast) – routinely provided to Western Australia women between the ages of 50 and 74 – could be used to screen for diseases other than breast cancer.

The study’s chief investigator Jennifer Stone said the project would be particularly focused on the scans’ potential to be used in assessing risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and renal disease.

Dr Stone, an expert in mammography from the University of Western Australia, said Western Australia was in a unique position to undertake the study because of its fabulous data linkage system and access to comprehensive databases.

Dr Stone said the study would build on existing research that suggested an association between breast arterial calcification and cardio-vascular disease.

“Most of the existing research has involved only small sample sizes of a few hundred women,” she said.

Dr Stone hopes her study – which will involve a cohort of around 200,000 women – will help confirm these earlier findings.

She reveals that in Western Australia, nearly 60 per cent of women between the ages of 50 and 69 years have had a mammogram through BreastScreen WA.

The study will link  data from women who have undergone  mammography since 2012 (the year BreastScreen WA completely transitioned from film to digital mammography) to data from the Hospital Morbidity Database, a database containing the discharge summaries of every person ever discharged from a hospital in this state (both public and private) since 1970.  Data from these women will also be linked with data from Imaging West to indicate whether any of the women have also had CT chest scans. 

Mammograms of women identified as having had a first-time cardiovascular event and age-matched “controls” (women without a disease event) will be retrieved and reviewed by the researchers for evidence of calcification of arteries within the breast tissue.  Any available CT chest scans will also be inspected for evidence of coronary arterial calcification that may be related to breast arterial calcification. 

Artery calcification is seen easily in mammograms but not routinely reported because it has no link to breast cancer.

Dr Stone said she and her co-researchers would use the same process to see if there were identifiable associations between breast arterial calcification and diabetes and renal disease.

If significant associations were found, the mammogram could be used to identify women at increased risk of these chronic diseases.

Dr Stone said the extra time and cost of the additional reporting would be minimal yet affected women could be given valuable notice of their increased risk to these conditions, enabling them to take preventative measures.

She said that without access to linked data, such a large-scale study would not be feasible.

Data linkage is the process of connecting information, taken from multiple data sets, about a particular person, family, place of event.  It is a valuable tool for researchers because it enables them to identify patterns in very large sample sizes. 


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