Cancer is a tricky beast and is often difficult to detect. For people who are at high risk of breast cancer, who have had breast cancer before, or who are currently undergoing treatment and need to know whether their cancer is spreading, there’s always a need for better ways to detect breast cancer.

Now a team of researchers at the Hamlyn Centre has come up with a low-powered implantable device that runs off of ultrasonic energy transfer and can detect cancer in soft tissues like the breasts with a high degree of sensitivity and specificity.

Photo: Adobe Stock/Andrey Popov

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Breast cancer cells naturally possess more lactate, nuclear receptors for estrogen and progesterone, amino acids, and choline compounds than healthy tissues do. There are wide variations between different patients and different types of cancer, but they remain different enough from healthy tissue that the device is able to pick up the change and alert the user that they may have breast cancer.

The device does no damage to the body, but, when placed in a target area where cancer is likely to occur, it can pick up tumor biomarkers, helping to diagnose some patients and evaluate tumor progression or recession in soft tissues in other patients. The device is designed to be able to exchange and transmit data such as pH and lactate levels using electrochemical electrodes.

Photo: Adobe Stock/Гульнара Мандрыкина

Within the device, a custom piezoelectric transducer converts the acoustic waves of the handheld ultrasound scanning probe into electrical voltage. It can use this power to transmit local parameter variations below 0.1 pH (4.2 mV) and 1 mM lactate (70 nA), making it very sensitive.

For most people, an implant to detect diseases may seem a little bit too invasive or unnecessary. But for people with a strong family or personal history of cancer, a genetic predisposition to developing cancer, or a current cancer case in need of monitoring, this is the perfect device to be able to check up on their health on a regular basis.

In the future, the team hopes to add electrochemical sensors to the implantable device to allow users to assess soft-tissue parameters on demand.

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