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‘Electronic Skin’ Could Improve Early Breast Cancer Detection

Scientists use nanoparticles and polymers to “feel” lumps

Scientists at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln are developing an “electronic skin” that “feels” and images small lumps that fingers can miss.

Knowing the size and shape of a lump could allow earlier identification of breast cancer, the investigators say. They describe their device, which they have tested on a breast model made of silicone, in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

Drs. Ravi F. Saraf and Chieu Van Nguyen point out that early diagnosis of breast cancer — the most common type of cancer in women — can help save lives. But small masses of cancer cells are not always easy to detect.

Current testing methods, including magnetic resonance imaging and ultrasounds, are sensitive but expensive, the authors say. Mammography is imperfect, especially when it comes to testing young women or women with dense breast tissue. Clinical breast exams performed by medical professionals as an initial screening step are inexpensive but typically don’t find lumps until they are 21 mm (about four-fifths of an inch) in length. Detecting lumps and determining their shape when they are less than half that size improves a patient’s survival rate by more than 94%, according to the authors.

Some devices already mimic a manual exam, but their image quality is poor, and they cannot determine a lump’s shape, which helps doctors figure out whether a tumor is cancerous. Saraf and Nguyen wanted to fill that gap. They proceeded to make an “electronic skin” out of nanoparticles and polymers that can detect, “feel,” and image small objects.

To test how the “skin” might work on a human subject, Saraf and Nguyen embedded lump-like objects in a piece of silicone mimicking a breast and pressed the device against this model with the same pressure a clinician would use in a manual exam. They were able to image the lump stand-ins, which were as small as 5 mm in length and as deep as 20 mm.

Saraf says the device could also be used to screen patients for early signs of melanoma and other cancers.

Source: ACS; September 10, 2014.

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