Nanotechnology gives super sensitive touch for early breast cancer detection

By Michelle Dickinson 27/09/2014

Breast Cancer is New Zealand’s 3rd most common cancer and in the US, almost 40,000 women died from breast cancer last year.

Women are encouraged to self examine their breasts so that they become aware of any changes or lumps which may appear at which point they are advised to visit a medical professional where a clinical breast exam (CBE) will be carried out.

This involves a doctor or a nurse using their hands to examine the patients breasts using their fingers to try and feel any lumps or bumps under the skin.  If something is found, then the next step is to refer the patient to a mammogram or to have a biopsy.

The big issue is that due to the poor sensitivity of the human hand, clinical breast exams typically don’t find a lump until they are 21mm in length, yet early detection is crucial as if a cancerous lump is found in the breast when it is only 10mm it improves a patient’s survival rate by more than 94% compared to patients that do not have early detection of tumours.

In my Radio Live interview last week I discussed a new nanotechnology film that is being dubbed “electronic skin” which could help to create an image of objects that lie underneath breast tissue.

Imagine a thin strip of plastic being placed over your breast and the doctor carrying out the breast examination over the strip creating a savable image of any lumps within your breast.  A different doctor could then carry out the same test over a film a few months later and could compare it to the previous results.  This type of reporting has not been possible using standard breast examinations because the results are qualitative and very much based on what the doctor feels and records which could vary by their experience level and touch sensitivity.

Created by Chieu Van Nguyen and Professor Ravi Saraf from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, this thin film was created and put to the test by placing lumps of objects inside a piece of silicone to simulate a tumour within the breast tissue.

In lab tests, using the same amount of pressure that a doctor would use in a clinical breast exam, the thin film device was able to successfully identify lumps down to 5mm in diameter and up to 20mm in depth which far exceeded what human touch would be able to detect.


The 150nm film was able to image subsurface objects in silicone identifying their shape and size.  Image adapted from original paper

Their research published in the journal American Chemical Society Applied Materials & Interfaces  describes how their 150nm ‘skin’ is filled with alternating sandwich layers of gold and cadmium sulfide nanoparticles.  These nanolayers have a constant bias of 18 volts across them and when the surface of the film was touched, the pressure from the finger touching them converted the local pushing force into a buckling within the film layers diverting the current.  This film was connected to an electro-optical device which measured the change in current from the buckling and converted it to an optical signal where the variation in light emission created an image on a camera (as shown in the blue image on the right).

So as amazing as this technology is, it’s still in the research stage.  Ravi Saraf estimates that a prototype device could be made within a year at the cost of about  $1.5 million however no reports have been made regarding and securing of funding for commercialisation yet.