According to the World Health Organization, 2.3 million women were diagnosed with breast cancer globally in 2020. The American Cancer Society has shown there is a 100% chance that breast cancer patients will survive with an early diagnosis. As part of the initial diagnosis, doctors examine the images or scans of breast tissue to determine whether there is an abnormality.
Doctors often use a device that captures images of breast tissue using sound waves, called an ultrasound, to diagnose breast cancer. Scientists in the past have identified a few limitations of ultrasound that doctors face. They found doctors need proper skills and training to obtain a good scan of breast tissue. They also found the liquid doctors apply to the breast area for scanning can make poor contact with the skin, leading to poor diagnoses. Furthermore, they found hospitals and imaging centers have a hard time maintaining the huge ultrasound machines they use to make the scans.
To overcome these limitations, a group of researchers recently designed a wearable, portable, and low-cost device that can be used to obtain images of breast tissue at any time. They called the device cUSBr-Patch, which stands for conformable ultrasound breast patch. To create a wearable patch, they used a machine that produces solid objects from digital models, called a 3D printer. They designed the patch in the shape of a honeycomb with holes in it that can be attached to a soft-fabric bra.
The scientists attached a small scanning device to the patch that produces sound waves to obtain medical images, like a tiny ultrasound machine. This device, called a phased array transducer, uses the same scanning technology as ultrasound scanners in hospitals. They placed a novel electrical substance, called a piezoelectric material, in the phased array transducer, which makes this small scanner different from the large ultrasound scanners used in hospitals, because it can produce clear images in high-resolution.
They used magnets to attach the cUSBr-Patch to a bra with holes in it that allow the patch to make direct contact with the skin. Then, they fitted a small tracker on the phased array transducer that could be moved and rotated with a handle to different positions and angles to capture images of the entire breast.
The researchers tested the cUSBr-Patch in a female patient with a history of abnormal changes in her breasts. They asked the patient to first wear the bra, and then the patch connected to the tracker and phased array transducer. The patient used the tracker handle to move the phased array transducer and scan the left and right breast at 6 different locations.
To obtain images of the woman’s breast tissue from the tracker data, the researchers used a computer program that produces images like those of ultrasound machines used in hospitals. They obtained several images at different angles that showed a large cyst in the woman’s left breast and a smaller cyst in the woman’s right breast. The scientists checked their test by asking an ultrasound specialist to examine the left and right breasts of the patient with the standard ultrasound device found in hospitals and imaging centers. The specialist confirmed the device’s diagnosis.
The scientists concluded that the cUSBr-Patch could detect breast cancer at a level comparable to ultrasound devices typically found in hospitals. Next, they are working on a miniature version of the imaging system that would be about the size of a smartphone. They expect the wearable cUSBr-Patch could be used at home by people who are at high risk of breast cancer. They also suggest their technology could help diagnose cancer in people who can’t access regular screening facilities. Their goal is to increase the survival of patients with breast cancer by 98%.