Cynthia Keppel talks at the speed of blur.
The nuclear physicist, internationally known for her work with protons and neutrons, barely pauses to breathe when explaining her research and the different imaging techniques used to detect breast cancer.
A mammogram is a breast X-ray, in which the tumor, denser than healthy tissue, casts a detectable shadow, she says. It’s highly sensitive but not specific enough to prevent unnecessary biopsies 60 percent of the time. Breast specific gamma imaging, on the other hand, radio-labels the tumors and maps their metabolic activity. When set over an X-ray, it gives physicians more specific information.
“It’s good for those with scar tissue, denser breasts or implants. It’s most important for younger women,” says Keppel. For breast cancer patients, Keppel’s research over the last decade has translated into technology allowing for more accurate and complete diagnoses and treatments.
And that is contributing to the vastly improved results for breast cancer patients. Once considered an automatic death sentence, breast cancer now has a 90 percent-plus, five-year survival rate for those diagnosed early.
Starting with imaging and diagnostics, Keppel’s work has progressed to the use of proton therapy. She is now the scientific and technical director at the Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute, which opened last year. Since 2000 she has earned nine patents, including one to enhance functional breast imaging, and has several more pending. She is the recipient of Virginia’s 2011 Outstanding Scientist award.
Keppel, 49, originally crossed disciplines to adapt her findings in nuclear physics at the Jefferson Lab to medical uses at the Center for Advanced Medical Integration, the state’s first medical physics program that she founded at Hampton University. Her work there included helping to improve a therapy in which high-dose radiation is delivered internally to a lumpectomy site instead of by an external beam, thereby reducing treatment time to five days from 30 to 40. It also spares more healthy tissue.
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