London, October 2 : Computers can read mammograms to spot breast cancer nearly as effective as experts, according to a new study.
Published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Cancer Research UK study involved two teams for reading mammograms: first comprising a radiologist and a computer, while the second consisting of two radiologists.
Computer-aided detection found 198 out of 227 cancers as compared to 199 from double-reading during the study involving 28,000 women.
The researchers behind the study believe say that an efficacious computer-aided detection means that the same number of experts can read more mammograms in a given period of time, and thus screenings can be offered to more number of women.
"We want to offer screening to a wider age group. This computer technology will help us achieve this," the BBC quoted Professor Fiona Gilbert of the University of Aberdeen, lead author of the study.
Professor Stephen Duffy, Cancer Research UK's professor of cancer screening, said that this study has cleared all doubts regarding the success of the computer-aided readings, which had sprung from the conflicting results of earlier studies.
"We can now say for certain that this system is as good at detecting breast cancer as the one used as standard practice," he said.
Dr Lesley Walker, Cancer Research UK's director of information, said: "This is good news for women - particularly for those who live in areas where invitations for screening have been late in arriving."
He, however, added that it is not possible to do away with the need for an expert to read mammograms.
"In the rare instance when the computer is at odds with the radiologist the human interpretation takes precedence," he said.
"But now we know that a computer can help give more accurate readings there is bound to be an improvement in the national screening programme which already saves 1,400 lives a year through early detection of breast cancer," he added.
The researchers said that further studies were needed to discern why the technique led to more women needing repeat screening, and also to assess practical implications for the NHS.
"To support technology like this, it will also be vital that digital mammography, which captures mammograms electronically rather than on film, is in place," said Dr Alexis Willett of Breakthrough Breast Cancer.
"Breakthrough Breast Cancer wants to see the Government's existing commitment to the roll-out of digital mammography in England by 2010 is made a reality," Dr. Willett added.
Maria Leadbeater of Breast Cancer Care insisted that close monitoring of the system would be required if it was introduced into clinical practice.
"We know from supporting women with breast cancer or breast health concerns that delays in access to routine screening can cause great anxiety. Any measures which could reduce these delays would be very welcome," Maria said.
A presentation on the study will be made at the National Cancer Research Institute's annual conference in Birmingham.