andrew schneider investigates

March 31, 2009

New technique uses color and 3-D to identify asbestos-caused disease faster and more accurately.

Traditional x-ray

Traditional x-ray

Over the years I have been seated in scores of hearing rooms and courtrooms – from worker’s comp cases to the ongoing W.R. Grace criminal trial – watching physicians trying desperately to explain to jurors that this or that gray blur on the X-ray clearly shows disease in the lung.

They’re almost always followed immediately by doctors paid by the defense insisting that the same vague shadows are benign.
But the difficulty of accurately reading x-rays and CT-scans is of even greater importance when physicians are trying to determine the cause of a patient’s illness.

Dr. Michael Harbut

Dr. Michael Harbut

Color has finally come to the murky gray world of scans, x-rays and chest radiography, and workers exposed to asbestos, coal dust, silica, beryllium and other heavy metal are among those with lung diseases who may immediately benefit.

This past weekend, Dr. Michael Harbut, co-director of the National Center for Vermiculite and Asbestos-Related Cancers at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, Mich. gave the world its first peek at the new radiographic technology.
The announcement was made at the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization’s annual conference in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

It was the ideal audience before which to unveil the technology. The 200-plus in attendance were physicians, public health specialists, nurses, patients and family members of those who have died from asbestos-related disease both in the U.S. and abroad.

This process allows “us to visualize lesions caused by asbestos exposure in three dimensional detail and often at a much earlier stage than that of the current standard radiographic techniques,” said Harbut, who has decades of experience in diagnosing and treating asbestos-related illness.

New technique

New technique

As Harbut flashed through slides, which vividly showed the ease of identifying lung disease with the 3-D, color technology, he spoke of the benefits of the new approach. In addition to earlier diagnoses, he said that the technology permits differentiation between patients with scarring on the lungs and other diseases and assists in determining why some people have uncontrolled, unrelenting pain.

Harbut worked with Dr. Carmen Endress, Associate Professor of Radiology, Wayne State University School of Medicine, who developed the technology.

Harbut explained that the new diagnostic tool could also have a significant public-health impact.

“If we can identify the ‘sentinel’ or first cases of asbestosis or lung cancer at an early stage, then we can help identify asbestos exposures in places where it might not have previously been suspected,” said Harbut, who is also chief of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Wayne State University.

Furthermore, the use of the new chest radiography in the identification of the abnormalities could help to reduce the death rate from asbestos-related diseases, Harbut said. The technology also may explain the disparity in pain levels between those suffering from lung cancer and those with mesothelioma. The enhanced view of the abdominal cavity shows contact with the rib cage that could significantly increase the level of pain suffered by those with mesothelioma.

Dr. Endress added, “It’s my sincere hope that with this new approach and enhanced technology we will help reduce the death rate caused by asbestos-related diseases, reduce the suffering by patients and their loved ones, and make a significant contribution to medicine.”

The word of the new technology will soon be spread throughout the medical community as Harbut and Endress have five journal articles waiting to be published.

This is not the first major medical advance by the Karmanos Cancer Institute. The center, which is located in downtown Detroit, is heavily involved in both clinical and basic research on asbestos-related cancers and has been credited with several major accomplishments in the diagnosis and treatment of mesothelioma.


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