Innovation

Ultra-Thin Sensors Placed On Breast May Help Detect Breast Cancer Early

Sensors
Ultra-thin sensors could one day help detect breast cancer Someya Laboratory, University of Tokyo

Today, a clinical breast exam involves health care providers using their fingers to check women’s breasts for lumps or abnormalities that might indicate breast cancer. Research shows that these tests often yield false positives, which in turn lead to a slew of unnecessary tests and inaccurate diagnoses. To prevent this, researchers from the University of Tokyo and Harvard teamed up to develop ultra-thin sensors that might one day help doctors more accurately detect the disease.  

Sensitive enough to detect even the slightest deformation in skin, the sensors are thinner than plastic wrap and incredibly flexible, meaning they could be molded onto gloves for clinicians to give exams with. “Health care practitioners may one day be able to physically screen for breast cancer using pressure-sensitive rubber gloves to detect tumors,” the researchers told Japan Times.

Each group of 144 sensors the researchers developed were made into a square measuring 4.8 centimeters on each side. The square is incredibly accurate, even when twisted up like a cloth — an important advancement because most flexible sensors lose accuracy the more they’re bent, professor Takeo Someya, of the University of Tokyo, said.

The researchers tested their sensors by placing them over an artificial blood vessel and pumping liquid through it at different speeds and volumes. Each time this happened, the sensors accurately detected changes. In real life, the sensors would give novice doctors the same ability to accurately measure these sensations as expert doctors have. “Sensitive human fingers of a veteran doctor may be able to find a small tumor, but such perceived sensation cannot be measured,” Someya said, referring to current practices.

Once this information is uploaded to a computer, it would be available anywhere. Other doctors who perform future exams on the same person can then refer back to these results before beginning, as well as after to compare their findings. The researchers say this would increase the likeliness of coming to an accurate diagnosis.

“The new sensor would make it possible to measure the human sensation so that findings by [touch] could even be shared remotely,” Someya said. “In the future, we would be able to record and make tangible certain sensations that can only be perceived by an experienced doctor.”

In the United States, about one in eight women develop some form of invasive breast cancer over the span of their lives. A mammogram is currently the most important tool when it comes to detecting breast cancer early, but research has found only half of women get regular mammogram screenings — often forgoing them because they’re painful, costly, or time consuming. With further development, these sensors may be crucial to fighting a disease that affects so many.

Source: Someya T, et al. A transparent bending-insensitive pressure sensor. Nature Nanotechnology. 2016.

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