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Electronic skin being developed to better detect breast cancer

It’s a whole new kind of breast exam.

Most of us are used to manual breast exams to monitor our health, but that could be changing.

Researchers are coming up with an “electronic skin” that senses and images small lumps that might otherwise be missed during breast exams. It could help improve breast cancer detection. The device is described in a current issue of ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

Ravi F. Saraf and Chieu Van Nguyen, researchers from the University of Nebraska, say that manual breast exams can miss small masses of cancer cells — and their device can catch those masses. Most doctors do not find lumps until they are 21 millimeters in length, which is about four-fifths of an inch. Other than manual exams, doctors also use MRIs, ultrasounds or mammography procedures to detect breast cancer.

In pinpointing lumps at a smaller size, it can boost a patient’s survival rate by more than 94 percent, the researchers say.

Testing the “second skin”

The electronic skin is made out of nanoparticles and polymers that can detect, “feel” and image small objects. It is about one-sixtieth the thickness of a human hair, just to give you an idea of how tiny it is!

The researchers 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 to see how it worked. They were able to image the lump stand-ins, which were as little as 5 millimeters and as deep as 20 millimeters.

Saraf said that the device may also be helpful to screen patients for early signs of melanoma and other cancers. Of course, more testing is required, but it’s good to know that new advancements are on the horizon.

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