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Detecting Breast Cancer With a Bra

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Trinity University engineer uses microwaves and a bendable circuit board embedded in a bra to screen for early onset breast cancer

by Susie P. Gonzalez

A Trinity University engineer, his students, and collaborators from McGill University in Montréal, Canada, are designing a bendable circuit board that can be placed in a woman’s bra, sending data to a laptop to keep a health record of her breast tissues over time.

“Think of it as a potential alternative to regular mammography – one that you can wear,” says Joshua Schwartz, Trinity engineering science professor.

He and his colleagues have recently demonstrated the second of three planned iterations of a wearable breast cancer detection device. In short, Schwartz says the device is more comfortable, less expensive, and less dangerous than a mammogram that utilizes X-ray technology. The team has published findings online in June and in the November edition of IEEE Transactions on Instrumentation and Measurement in an article titled, “A Time-Domain Microwave System for Breast Cancer Detection Using a Flexible Circuit Board.” 

“X-raying yourself is bad,” he adds. “You want to avoid doing that as much as you can. This board uses microwaves. And although it sounds scary, it is not. Your cell phones use microwaves. For people who are skittish about microwaves, I tell them this is less powerful than your cell phone.”

The goal for the final product is not to function as a diagnostic tool – instead, it would help a woman and her healthcare provider decide whether a more detailed clinical scanning tool such as a MRI would be warranted. Schwartz describes how “women used to be told to feel for lumps with their hands… but recent studies have shown this led to too many needless biopsies and surgeries. The World Health Organization now recommends against the breast self-exam – but this takes a certain element of women’s health care out of their hands (so to speak).” Once a final version is available, a woman could wear the “breast cancer detection bra,” plugged into a laptop, for a few minutes to gather the necessary tissue records. The process would be beneficial in a rural or remote area where women do not have convenient access to mammography equipment.

“It is not designed to be worn all day long,” Schwartz says. “A woman wears the bra for just a few minutes to collect the data. She could wear it every month or whatever interval her doctor wanted to collect data over time and watch the evolution of the tissues. It can help to establish a healthy baseline early on – or possibly to monitor a known tumor during a course of treatment without X-raying yourself repeatedly.”

The first version of the “breast cancer detection bra” was far from wearable - it had 16 heavy cables poking out of a rigid, dome-shaped bra cup; the second version has less than half as many cables, a much lower cost, and the cup is thin and more flexible. Schwartz wants to reduce that cable number to two in the next design so that they can be concealed in a bra strap or band and the device can actually be worn without the discomfort of compression that accompanies traditional mammography.

Another bonus is the cost of the wearable device. While the final cost is not yet known, a ballpark figure is a few thousand dollars per unit, Schwartz says, “compared with a mammography machine that costs more than a house.”

His team is in early talks with a bra manufacturer, he has written a federal grant proposal to fund the next iteration of the design, and the team is also seeking a patent to protect the idea. Other research groups are trying to develop alternatives to mammography, but Schwartz said none of the others have demonstrated a similar microwave-based product that can be worn. “The other designs can be used in a specialized lab, but not in the patient’s home,” he says.

“We want to make it so convenient that you could use it anywhere,” he says. “I never thought as part of my engineering training that I would be designing ladies’ undergarments. But we were told to be ready for the unexpected. That was pretty unexpected.”

He says the team has one more design to tweak before taking the product to the commercial market. Schwartz says he has no relatives who are breast cancer patients, but he does recognize the importance of his designs, adding, “I'm excited to work on something that people can appreciate and understand. Engineers in academia often work on really deep, technical issues… but this is an idea that you can pitch in an elevator and that people can relate to right away.”

Susie P. Gonzalez, senior manager of public relations in the Office of University Marketing and Communications, can be reached at susie.gonzalez [at] trinity.edu or @susiegonz.