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Diagnostic Ultrasound Bra Detects Breast Cancer Earlier

By MedImaging International staff writers
Posted on 31 Jul 2023
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Image: A wearable ultrasound scanner could detect breast cancer earlier (Photo courtesy of MIT)
Image: A wearable ultrasound scanner could detect breast cancer earlier (Photo courtesy of MIT)

The survival rate for breast cancer detected at the earliest stages is nearly 100%. However, the survival rate decreases to around 25% when tumors are identified at later stages. Tumors that form between regular mammogram screenings, known as interval cancers, account for 20 to 30% of all breast cancer cases and also tend to be more aggressive. Researchers aiming to increase the overall survival rate for breast cancer patients have developed a wearable ultrasound device that could detect tumors in their early stages. This tool could be particularly beneficial for patients at a high risk of developing breast cancer between routine mammograms.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, Cambridge, MA, USA) have developed a flexible patch that can be attached to a bra. This patch allows the wearer to maneuver an ultrasound tracker to image breast tissue from different angles. In the new study, researchers demonstrated that they were able to obtain ultrasound images having comparable resolution to that of ultrasound probes used in medical imaging centers. Initially, the team drafted a rough sketch of a diagnostic device that could be integrated into a bra for more frequent screening of individuals at high risk of breast cancer. The diagnostic bra concept became a reality when the team finally developed a miniaturized ultrasound scanner that allowed users to perform imaging at their convenience. This scanner is founded on the same ultrasound technology used in medical imaging centers but includes a novel piezoelectric material that enabled miniaturization of the scanner.

The device was made wearable by designing a flexible, 3D-printed patch featuring honeycomb-like openings. Using magnets, the patch can be fastened to a bra that has specific openings for the ultrasound scanner to make skin contact. The ultrasound scanner is placed inside a small tracker that can be moved to six different positions for complete breast imaging. The scanner can also be rotated to capture images from various angles and does not require specialized knowledge to be operated. The wearable ultrasound patch can be reused, and the researchers envisage its potential for at-home use by individuals at high risk for breast cancer, benefiting from frequent screening. It could also assist in diagnosing cancer in individuals who lack regular access to screening. At present, the researchers need to connect their scanner to a typical ultrasound machine used in imaging centers to view the ultrasound images. However, they are working on a miniaturized version of the imaging system that would be roughly the size of a smartphone.

The team tested their device on a 71-year-old woman with a history of breast cysts. The researchers successfully detected the cysts, as small as 0.3 centimeters in diameter—comparable to early-stage tumors—using the new device. The device demonstrated resolution similar to that of traditional ultrasound, imaging tissue up to 8 centimeters deep. The team hopes to establish a process where data gathered from a subject can be analyzed by artificial intelligence to observe image changes over time, potentially providing more accurate diagnostics than a radiologist comparing images taken years apart. They also intend to investigate the potential for adapting the ultrasound technology to scan other body parts.

“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,” said Canan Dagdeviren, an associate professor in MIT’s Media Lab and the senior author of the study. “My goal is to target the people who are most likely to develop interval cancer. With more frequent screening, our goal to increase the survival rate to up to 98%.”

“This technology provides a fundamental capability in the detection and early diagnosis of breast cancer, which is key to a positive outcome,” said Anantha Chandrakasan, one of the authors of the study. “This work will significantly advance ultrasound research and medical device designs, leveraging advances in materials, low-power circuits, AI algorithms, and biomedical systems.”

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