Breast cancer detector with a unique touch
5 October 2009
Researchers at Drexel University in the US are developing a new
portable, low-cost, radiation-free breast cancer detector that can be
used in a doctor’s office as a first-line to detect breast cancer in
younger women and in women over 40 with mammographically dense-tissue
The detector is based on piezoelectric fingers (an elastic and shear
modulus sensor) developed at Drexel. In evaluations on tumour specimens,
it has positively identified a 3mm tumour previously missed by
mammography, ultrasound and the physician’s palpation.
The researchers, Dr Wan Y Shih, a breast cancer survivor and an
associate professor in Drexel’s School of Biomedical Engineering,
Science and Health Systems, Dr Wei-Heng Shih, a professor in Drexel’s
materials science and engineering department and Dr Ari D Brooks, an
associate professor of surgery at the Drexel University College of
Medicine, expect to develop a portable, radiation-free, breast-scanning
device that is not only capable of locating small tumours of any type,
but also able to predict tumour malignancy.
The proposed screening tool will be positioned as an early breast
cancer screening tool to be used by physicians and gynaecologists in the
clinical setting in conjunction with the physical examination. It
supplements mammography to screen early for breast cancer in women with
dense-tissue breasts. In countries such as China and India, where
mammography is not readily available due to cost, the PEF device can be
used as a primary screening tool.
To date the only FDA-approved breast cancer screening system in the
US is mammography beginning at age 40 for women. The effectiveness of
this screening device is lessened in women with dense breasts. A
mammogram provides no information on the stiffness or mobility of a
tumour and has a typical sensitivity of 85 percent, which decreases to
65 percent in radio-dense breasts. Meanwhile, data show that in 2005
alone more than 200,000 American women were diagnosed with breast cancer
and 40,000 deaths occurred from the disease.
The PEF device consists of a hand-held probe and small electrical
measurement units that can be operated by a laptop computer and
eventually will be a standalone device. The PEF probe measures tissue
elasticity and mobility — breast cancers are both stiffer and less
mobile than surrounding tissue — and uses elasticity and mobility
contrast to detect breast cancer.
The innovations of the PEF sensor include:
- Palpation-like tissue stiffness imaging both under shear and
under compression with less than one-millimetre spatial resolution
up to a depth of several centimetres.
- Use of the shear modulus/elastic modulus ratio to measure tumour
mobility to screen for malignancy.
The key advantages of PEF are:
- The proposed PEF has better detection size sensitivity than all
existing technologies — has positively identified a 3 mm tumour
missed by mammography, ultrasound, and the physician’s palpation.
- It has demonstrated more than 90 percent correlation between the
shear/elastic modulus ratio and tumor malignancy — a capability all
existing technologies lack.
- With a single or double 1.5 cm wide PEF of depth sensitivity of
3 or 6 cm, it can probe for breast cancer for almost all body-types.
- Patients are in a supine position which poses no discomfort to
- The PEF is gentle. It only works with less than 1 percent
strain, which would cause minimal discomfort to the patient.
- It is portable and can be low cost for both physicians and
According to the researchers the PEF device is as simple to use as
the breast self-examination and the clinical breast examination as a
cost-effective pre-screening system.
Although several breast cancer detection technologies exist, such as
ultrasound, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Nuclear Medicine Tests,
these procedures are relatively expensive and require trained medical
personnel. They may also carry risks from radiation exposure (such as
with mammography or PET scan) and they may also be quite uncomfortable
(such as with mammography and MRI).
The PEF device will fill a need for a pre-screening tool for early
and accurate breast cancer detection with no risk or discomfort to
patients, according to the researchers.
The next step in the project’s development is to build a hand-held
PEF probe prototype and a simple electrical measurement unit to carry
out in vivo measurement in patients before surgery. The researchers
envision an ultimate calculator-size electrical measuring unit and a
less than 5" x 5" x 5" 3-D automation unit will be developed to operate
This imaging tool will help the physician locate smaller breast
tumours than the current technologies and screen for tumour malignancy
at the same time to save lives.
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