Imaging Technology Improves Spinal Canal Tumor Detection

News from the National Institute of Health Clinical Center

Commentary by Ronald M. Summers, MD, PhD

Scientists have developed a new computer system that works in conjunction with CT scans that improves detection of tumors in the spinal canal more clearly than ever. This latest technology was developed by doctors at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Radiology and Imaging Sciences Department in Bethesda, Maryland. Using computer-assisted detection (CAD), small masses that previously were difficult to detect using only computed tomography (CT) scans on patients, can now be found.

CT imaging show an epidural mass in the spinal canal

Small Masses Often Overlooked Now Detected

Such small masses—some only a quarter of an inch thick—often can be missed by radiologists due to their tiny size and subtle shading. Epidural tumors, for example, are often overlooked for this reason since they are located on the dura; the thick membrane that envelops the spinal cord and spinal nerve roots. Early detection is important before a tumor begins to compress the spinal cord, which can lead to paralysis, pain, and loss of bladder and bowel function.

This new computer-assisted technology will make it easier for doctors at the NIH to find and prevent small tumors early on so treatment can begin sooner. The tumors are usually treated with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and sometimes surgery. These treatments are generally well tolerated by the patient and offer a significantly improved quality of life.

Up until now, epidural tumors were usually discovered by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) when there was a preexisting suspicion of their presence in patients who already had a known form of cancer. This new computer program can detect these small tumors without MRI. 

Automated Imaging

According to Ronald Summers, MD, PhD, Senior Investigator, Clinical Image Processing Service in the Imaging Biomarkers and Computer-Aided Diagnosis Laboratory, “Our CAD system acts as an automated additional reviewer of CT examinations so that these subtle tumors are less likely to be missed. Since many of our patients already have cancer, it is important that we can detect masses quickly, including those that affect the spinal cord.”

Staff scientist Jiamin Liu, PhD and Imaging Sciences Training Program Fellow Lauren Kim, MD are now conducting a study to assess how the program is working for Clinical Center patients. Both Drs. Liu and Kim work with Dr. Summers.

Advancing Imaging Research

Summers’ lab is also looking beyond epidural tumors near the spine. NIH researchers are also working on the automated detection of bone metastases and fractures, as well as detection of tumors in other parts of the body such as the colon, ovaries, and pancreas.

Updated on: 02/19/19
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