We evaluated the diagnostic implications of a small-voxel reconstruction for lymph node characterization in breast cancer patients, using state-of-the-art FDG-PET/CT. We included 69 FDG-PET/CT scans from breast cancer patients. PET data were reconstructed using standard 4 × 4 × 4 mm3 and small 2 × 2 × 2 mm3 voxels. Two hundred thirty loco-regional lymph nodes were included, of which 209 nodes were visualised on PET/CT. All nodes were visually scored as benign or malignant, and SUVmax and TBratio(=SUVmax/SUVbackground) were measured. Final diagnosis was based on histological or imaging information. We determined the accuracy, sensitivity and specificity for both reconstruction methods and calculated optimal cut-off values to distinguish benign from malignant nodes.
Sixty-one benign and 169 malignant lymph nodes were included. Visual evaluation accuracy was 73% (sensitivity 67%, specificity 89%) on standard-voxel images and 77% (sensitivity 78%, specificity 74%) on small-voxel images (p = 0.13). Across malignant nodes visualised on PET/CT, the small-voxel score was more often correct compared with the standard-voxel score (89 vs. 76%, p < 0.001). In benign nodes, the standard-voxel score was more often correct (89 vs. 74%, p = 0.04).
Quantitative data were based on the 61 benign and 148 malignant lymph nodes visualised on PET/CT. SUVs and TBratio were on average 3.0 and 1.6 times higher in malignant nodes compared to those in benign nodes (p < 0.001), on standard- and small-voxel PET images respectively. Small-voxel PET showed average increases in SUVmax and TBratio of typically 40% over standard-voxel PET. The optimal SUVmax cut-off using standard-voxels was 1.8 (sensitivity 81%, specificity 95%, accuracy 85%) while for small-voxels, the optimal SUVmax cut-off was 2.6 (sensitivity 78%, specificity 98%, accuracy 84%). Differences in accuracy were non-significant.
Small-voxel PET/CT improves the sensitivity of visual lymph node characterization and provides a higher detection rate of malignant lymph nodes. However, small-voxel PET/CT also introduced more false-positive results in benign nodes. Across all nodes, differences in accuracy were non-significant. Quantitatively, small-voxel images require higher cut-off values. Readers have to adapt their reference standards.