According to the Susan G. Komen organization, 1.7 million new cases of breast cancer were diagnosed worldwide in 2012. It is widely accepted that early detection is key to successful diagnosis and treatment of the disease; the American Cancer Society reports that the survival rate for patients is 94 percent when tumors are diagnosed when they are smaller than 10 mm. Screening for breast cancer can be difficult, however. MRI and ultrasound are highly effective, but they are expensive. Mammograms can be uncomfortable for patients, and can provide misleading results. Manual breast examinations, even by a trained medical professional, can often miss smaller lumps. A group of scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have developed a new approach that could save lives.
Researchers Ravi Saraf and Chieu Van Nguyen have developed a thin film that can measure tiny differences in pressure. Combining nanotechnology and polymers, the pressure causes changes in how electricity and light pass through the film, making it possible to detect small objects of different densities, even when embedded in other tissue. In trials, the device was able to detect lumps as small as 5 mm across even when nearly an inch deep in the tissue. In comparison, healthcare professionals typically don’t detect lumps smaller than 20 mm during a breast exam.
The scientists envision this detection system as an inexpensive part of any clinical examination. It could be used as the basis for a stethoscope-style device that a physician could use to perform a more accurate exam and deliver immediate results. I see other possible applications for the technology. This film could be embedded in clothing, and provide data over time about any possible masses in a patient’s breasts.