A few years ago, Ileana Hancu, a young physicist at GE Global Research, left her lab for a routine physical exam and came back with troubling news: the doctor apparently felt a lump in Hancu’s breast. What followed was an odyssey through the achievements of modern medicine, from mammography, to ultrasound and near biopsy.

But when Hancu arrived for her biopsy appointment, the surgeon couldn’t find any suspicious area to sample and sent her for more tests. Finally, an MRI scan gave Hancu’s doctor enough evidence that she was healthy and no further screening was necessary. “In my case it was nothing, it was just a scare that took a month,” Hancu says. “But it made me realize that the way things are right now, even though we have so many imaging tools, we are not as good as we could be.”

Hancu could not let her experience go. Since she has a doctorate in magnetic resonance, she went into her lab and designed an imaging method that could one day save women like her from a similar ordeal. “I want the doctor to be able to look at all the images from an examination, and know for sure that everything is all right, or whether there is cancer,” she says. “Nobody needs or wants uncertainty at the end of a test.”

Hancu’s research could help women in groups for whom mammograms can often be inconclusive, like those who have dense breasts. “You want to find out the answer about the positive or negative at that moment in time,” she says.

Hancu studied optics in her native Bucharest, Romania, in the mid-1990s. “There probably wasn’t a single MRI machine in the whole country at that point in time,” she laughs.

She discovered magnetic resonance during her post-graduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh, and got a doctorate in the field. “That’s why I ended up at the GRC,” she says. “There are few places in the world that could use that kind of expertise.”

MRI has been used in the clinic for breast cancer diagnosis, but standard MRI images produced too many false positives, or lesions, which turned out to be benign at biopsy.

Hancu is developing methods that would allow her to see even smaller tumors. She and her collaborator, Robert Lenkinski from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, have won a five-year, $3.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for their research. They plan to test the technology on patients in a clinical trial to help further evaluate its use in breast cancer diagnosis.

Hancu says that for her, learning is not an academic exercise. “If you end up developing an imaging technique that will help save people from having biopsies, if you can develop a technique that can tell you with certitude whether you have cancer or not, I think that’s the final measure of success,” Hancu says. “I measure success by making an impact on somebody’s life.”