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Alumna publishes life-saving cancer research study

December 19, 2016

Lisle, Illinois ~ Benedictine alumna Maryellen (Lissak) Giger, Ph.D., C78, Mathematics, Physics and Health Science, has made improving the process of screening and identifying breast cancer a critical part of her life’s work.

Her latest research findings, published in the American Journal of Roentgenology, conclude that for women with dense breast tissue, combining mammography with a 3-D automated breast ultrasound system can improve the detection of breast cancer by 29 percent.

Women with dense (less fatty) breast tissue represent 40 percent of all U.S. women, and they are four to six times more likely to develop breast cancer than women with non-dense breast tissue. Cancers in these women are also more likely to go undetected after having a mammogram.

The study analyzed the performance of 17 radiologists in their detection of breast cancer using full-field digital mammography only versus full-field digital mammography followed by 3-D automated breast ultrasound.

The radiologists looked at 185 cases collected from prior clinical studies in which both imaging methodologies had been used. Out of the 52 cases in which cancer was identified, 31 had been interpreted in the prior clinical studies as negative for cancer on the mammogram.

When comparing the mammogram and 3-D ultrasound results to results from the mammogram only, the radiologists enhanced their ability to detect cancer by what the study’s researchers termed a “statistically significant relative improvement.”

“The improved detection in nearly a third of women with dense breasts is significant because it means those are cancers that might not have been found until it became more apparent on a mammogram,” Giger said. “And by the time they were discovered, the cancer might have been at a more advanced stage.

“The takeaway here is women with dense breasts should augment traditional mammographic screening with another type of imaging modality, such as 3-D ultrasound (or MRI), in order to avoid missing cancerous lesions,” Giger added.

Giger is the A.N. Pritzker Professor of Radiology for the Committee on Medical Physics and the College at the University of Chicago, as well as the vice-chair for Basic Science Research in the Department of Radiology. She is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and is considered one of the pioneers in the development of computer-aided diagnosis, authoring or co-authoring more than 300 scientific manuscripts. She also is the inventor/co-inventor of 25 patents, and serves as a reviewer for various national and international granting agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Army. In the breast cancer study, she served as an independent evaluator for the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the Automated Breast Ultrasound System from GE Healthcare.

“My main line of research is the development of computer-aided diagnosis/quantitative image analysis as decision support for radiologists,” Giger said. “My lab has been successful in developing the means to extract big data information from medical images, which means we have opportunities to help radiologists detect disease earlier.”

As a student at Benedictine, Giger majored in Mathematics, Physics and Health Science, and spent three summers with Michael Shea, Ph.D., C55, Physics, at Fermilab working on temperature controls for the neutron therapy system

and building electronics for the Beam Diagnostic and Cancer Therapy groups.

“That’s how I became more interested in medical physics,” Giger said. “I always liked math and physics, but I especially liked where it contributed to helping society.”

Giger is also working with biologists to capture the genetic characteristics of cancer in MRIs and other radiological images. While currently in the discovery (not clinical) stage, this research may lead to computer-extracted image findings that may improve a patient's diagnoses, prognosis and treatment choice.

“We’ve just published five papers in the past year relating the characteristics of breast cancer tumors seen on MRIs to tumor subtypes, such as receptor status and genomic characteristics,” Giger said. "We are now running a larger dataset for analysis."

In 2015, Giger was honored by Benedictine with the Who's Who Visionary award, which recognizes alumni who have reached the pinnacle of their careers and have made a significant impact on the world around them.

She remembers her time at Benedictine fondly, and is appreciative of the professors who encouraged her to pursue internships and presented her with research opportunities outside the classroom.

“It’s because of the experiences I had at Benedictine that I try to continue to pay it forward and present research opportunities to students from BenU," Giger said.


Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois, just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has a branch campus in Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls nearly 5,000 students in undergraduate and graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the ninth consecutive year in 2019. Benedictine University was also named the second-safest campus in the country and safest campus in Illinois by in 2019. Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. For more information about the University, contact (630) 829-6300, or visit

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