A group of scientists are currently working on the development of an “electronic skin” that has the capacity to detect – or “feel” – and produce images of small lumps in breast tissue that the practiced fingers of a clinician could miss.

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Breast self-examination plays an important role in the early detection of cancer. Could the new “electronic skin” device play a similar role?

The new technology could lead to improving cancer survival rates by over 94% if it can successfully detect lumps and accurately determine their shape when they are less than 10 millimeters in length.

The thin-film tactile device is being developed by Chieu Van Nguyen and Ravi F. Saraf from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and they describe both the device and its preliminary testing within the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

At present, there are several different ways of testing for breast cancer but each has its limitations. The most common method is mammography, but this form of screening has been criticized for occasionally delivering incorrect results and being ineffective for patients with dense breasts.

Clinical breast examination (CBE) by a health care professional is the other widely used method for screening for cancer, as it is inexpensive, radiation-free and can be performed in an outpatient setting. The major drawback is that clinicians are usually unable to detect lumps until they are 21 mm in length.

Early detection of breast cancer is key to a positive prognosis, as it allows health care professionals to deal with invasive lumps before they can spread to neighboring tissue and throughout the body.

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in American women; around 1 in 8 women (12%) will develop an invasive form of breast cancer during their lifetime. In 2013, officials estimated that nearly 300,000 new cases were diagnosed in the country.

The device is made from nanoparticles and polymers and can image palpable features within breast tissue. The scientists have formulated the device so that it operates with an optimum level of sensitivity so as to provide quality imaging while not requiring a level of pressure that would create discomfort.

Pre-existing devices such as the commercially available SureTouch already emulate the CBE, but the quality of their imaging is relatively poor, and the devices are unable to accurately determine the shape of lumps – a crucial factor in identifying cancerous tumors.

In order to test their “electronic skin” to see how it might work with a human patient, the scientists positioned lump-like objects within a piece of silicone to simulate breast tissue. They then applied the device to their model with the same level of pressure that a clinician would use in a CBE.

During this testing, the device was able to successfully identify lumps as small as 5 mm and as deep within the silicone as 20 mm (three times the thickness of the mass itself) – measurements that would typically be very difficult to detect for even an experienced clinician.

The development of this “electronic skin” device has been funded by the National Institutes of Health.

These early results are promising, and Saraf believes that in the future, as well as breast cancer, their device could be used to screen for early signs of melanoma and other cancers.

Doctors say that detecting cancer early saves thousands of lives every year. Currently, the American Cancer Society (ACS) recommend the following measures as screening guidelines for the majority of adults:

  • Have yearly mammograms from the age of 40 while in good health.
  • Have a CBE every 3 years from the age of 20, increasing to an annual CBE for women aged 40 and over.
  • Begin breast self-examination from the age of 20.

It is recommended that people consult with their doctor about their best course of action. Some people may be advised to have additional tests at an earlier age due to factors such as their family and medical histories.

Recently, Medical News Today reported on a study stating that wearing a bra does not cause cancer.

Written by James McIntosh