By James Gamble
A new wearable ultrasound patch that fits inside a bra can detect breast cancer quicker.
The device is designed to monitor breast tissue and detect tumors in their early stages – dramatically increasing patients’ survival rates.
American researchers developed the wearable device to combat ‘interval cancers’ which develop between regular scans and account for nearly a third (30 percent) of all breast cancer cases.
The survival rate for breast cancer – the most common cancer among women – is nearly 100 percent when diagnosed in its earliest stages.
However, for tumors detected in the latter stages, that figure drops by three-quarters to just 25 percent.
The research team, led by Turkish scientist Dr. Canan Dağdeviren, was engineered as a way to monitor those most at risk of breast cancer at home.
The 38-year-old, who is also an Associate Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Media Lab in the US, was additionally influenced in her work by her tragic personal experiences.
Dr. Dağdeviren’s aunt, Fatma Caliskanoglu, was diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer aged 49 despite regular screenings and sadly passed away six months later.
Determined to improve and aid early cancer diagnoses, and drawing influence from her aunt’s bedside, Dr. Dağdeviren, then a postdoctorate student at MIT, began thinking of how to go about designing a wearable diagnostic device that could be incorporated into a bra.
The resulting ultrasound device hopes to aid earlier diagnoses of breast cancer in women and was found to take images just as good as those at medical imaging centers.
Researchers developed the device as a flexible patch that can be attached to a bra, allowing the wearer to move freely whilst an ultrasound tracker images breast tissue from different angles.
The device was also found to obtain ultrasound images with a comparable resolution to those taken by ultrasound probes used in medical imaging centers.
Where a person lives and whether they have access to affordable healthcare and regular screenings can also affect an individual’s survival rate.
Dr. Dağdeviren explained: “We changed the form factor of the ultrasound technology so that it can be used in your home.
“It’s portable and easy to use and provides real-time, user-friendly monitoring of breast tissue.
“My goal is to target the people who are most likely to develop interval cancer.
“With more frequent screening, our goal is to increase the survival rate to up to 98 percent.”
Breast tumors that develop in between regularly scheduled mammogram breast screenings are known as interval cancers and account for between 20 and 30 percent of all cases of breast cancer.
These tumors tend to be more aggressive than those found during routine scans.
Dr. Dağdeviren’s research group, which specializes in wearable electronic devices conforming to the body, began by developing a miniaturized ultrasound scanner that allowed the user to perform imaging at any time.
The scanner is based on the same kind of technology used in medical imaging centers but uses a novel, piezoelectric material – a material that creates an electrical charge when mechanically stressed – which allowed the team to miniaturize the scanner.
To make the device wearable, the team designed a flexible, 3D-printed patch with honeycomb-like openings which, using magnets, can be attached to a bra that has openings that allow the scanner to make contact with the wearer’s skin.
The ultrasound scanner fits snugly inside a small tracker which can be moved to six different positions, allowing the entire breast to be imaged.
It can also be rotated to take images from different angles and requires no specialist expertise to operate.
Anantha Chandrakasan, Dean of MIT’s School of Engineering and another author of the study said: “This technology provides a fundamental capability in the detection and early diagnosis of breast cancer, which is key to a positive outcome.
“This work will significantly advance ultrasound research and medical device designs, leveraging advances in materials, low-power circuits, AI algorithms, and biomedical systems.”
The team tested the device on a 71-year-old woman with a history of breast cysts and found the device was able to detect these cysts which were as small as 0.3 centimeters in diameter – a similar size to early-stage tumors.
The device also took images of a comparable resolution to that of a typical ultrasound, and that tissue could be imaged at a depth of up to eight centimeters.
Catherine Ricciardi, nurse director at MIT’s Center for Clinical and Translational Research and another author of the study, said factors such as access to healthcare also had a major role to play in the early detection of breast cancer.
“Access to quality and affordable health care is essential for early detection and diagnosis,” she said.
“As a nurse, I have witnessed the negative outcomes of a delayed diagnosis.
“This technology holds the promise of breaking down the many barriers for early breast cancer detection by providing a more reliable, comfortable, and less intimidating diagnostic.”
Though wearers currently have to connect their scanners to the same kind of ultrasound machine as those in imaging centers, the research team is currently working on a miniaturized imaging system around the size of a smartphone.
The ultrasound patch can be reused again and again, and the researchers envisage it being used at home by those at high risk of breast cancer who could benefit from more frequent screening, as well as helping diagnose cancer in those who have no access to regular screening.
Dr. Tolga Ozmen, a breast cancer surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital who is also an author of the study, said the ‘commute’ for women to get to an imaging centre remained one of the biggest obstacles to early detection.
Dr. Ozmen said: “Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women, and it is treatable when detected early.
“One of the main obstacles in imaging and early detection is the commute that the women have to make to an imaging center.
“This conformable ultrasound patch is a highly promising technology as it eliminates the need for women to travel to an imaging center.”
The researchers also hope to incorporate advances in artificial intelligence to analyze how images change over time, offering more accurate diagnostics than relying on the assessment of a radiologist comparing images taken years apart.
The team also plans to explore adapting the technology to scan other parts of the body; leading to earlier diagnoses of other cancers.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker