Polymer Electronic Skin Takes Breast Cancer Detection to New Level

New screening method for breast cancer.
Mammography has disadvantages, including intense discomfort. It’s also not ideal for detecting tumors in younger women, and those with dense tissue.

Breast cancer is the No. 1 cancer in women worldwide. In 2012, 1.7 million new cases of breast cancer were diagnosed. It’s estimated that more than 230,000 new cases of breast cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2014, and that there will be 40,000 deaths from breast cancer. Studies have proved that early detection is key to breast cancer survival. Also, the smaller the tumor when discovered, the better the chance it hasn’t spread or disrupted nearby tissue.

Ravi Saraf and Chieu Van Nguyen, scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, have created an electronic skin that can detect lumps as small as 5mm and as deep as 20mm into the tissue. The electronic skin device, which is about 150nm thck, has many layers comprised of nanoparticles and polymers. It’s fabricated layer by layer using the polyelectrolytes poly(allylamine hydrochloride) (PAH) and poly(styrenesulfonate) (PSS).

When held against the skin, the device can image the tissue, showing any abnormalities, and capture the image with a high-resolution camera. The device has been optimized for sensitivity in order to provide high-quality images without the need for uncomfortable pressure on the breast.

Traditional Early Screening Methods

Clinical breast examination (CBE) is performed by physicians or other health-care professionals during a routine exam. Their trained touch can often detect lumps near the surface and in the tissue within the breast. While mammograms, MRIs, and ultrasounds are available as more advanced detection methods, CBE is still crucial in breast cancer detection. One of the disadvantages faced by health-care professionals is that they cannot usually detect lumps smaller than 21mm. Early detection of breast cancer is vital to the treatment protocol. While clinicians can detect lumps at 21mm, the American Cancer Society cites a 94% survival rate if the tumor can be detected at less than 10mm.

A mammogram detects tumors by comparing the density to the rest of the breast tissue. However, the procedure is extremely uncomfortable, it’s not as effective at diagnosing tumors in younger women, and it’s difficult to detect tumors in women with dense or highly vascular breast tissue. While MRIs and ultrasounds are much more comfortable and effective at detecting tumors, the technology is too costly to use for early screening.

Second Skin

Studies were done to examine objects placed in silicone to represent tumors inside the breast tissue. The electronic skin was able to determine “tumors” at sizes four times smaller than can be detected by the most skilled health care provider during a CBE.

As stated, one of benefits to the device is the ability to record the images seen and include them in the patient’s medical records. Traditional CBEs do not provide this type of in-depth data. This technology also provides results right away. Saraf said:

Other tests, such as mammogram and MRI, require a nerve-wracking wait until the results are reported. This is more like an ultrasound, providing immediate results without radiation and not as uncomfortable as a mammogram.

The team is currently seeking funding to build the first prototype of the device. According to Saraf and Nguyen, it will take about a year to build and cost an estimated $1.5 million.

Early Detection

Breast cancer is so prevalent today that many of us have lost a friend or loved one to breast cancer or at least know someone who has. A new form of early screening to replace the mammogram is what women all over the world have been waiting for, and each can benefit from this giant stride forward in early breast cancer detection. This electronic skin screening for early detection is an advanced screening that can be done right in the doctor’s office during a routine visit and provide instant results.

Image by stockbroker/123RF.
Source: “Breast Cancer in Women,” by Susan G. Komen, https://ww5.komen.org/.”
Source: ‘Human Touch’ Nanoparticle Sensor Could Improve Breast Cancer Detection,” by Leslie Reed, www.phys.org, September 11, 2014.
Source: ” ‘Electronic Skin’ Could Revolutionize Breast Cancer Detection,” by James McIntosh, www.medicalnewstoday.com, September 15, 2014.
Source: ” ‘Electronic Skin’ Could Improve Early Breast Cancer Detection,” Phys.org, www.phys.org, September 10, 2014.
Source: “Tactile Imaging of an Imbedded Palpable Structure for Breast Cancer Screening,” by Chieu Van Nguyen and Ravi F. Saraf, ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, August 22, 2014, DOI: 10.1021/am5046789.