Could your bra one day detect breast cancer? One team of researchers in the United Kingdom says it is moving closer to a prototype for such an undergarment.
Called a "smart bra," the device incorporates a series of microwave antennae to detect temperature changes in the breast that point to early stage breast cancer.
Professor Elias Siores, director of the Centre for Research and Innovation at the University of Bolton in the United Kingdom and inventor of the smart bra, says the device can detect cancer before the tumor can develop and spread into the surrounding areas.
The concept at play is known as thermography, the detection of subtle temperature changes within the breast. Spot elevations in temperature, Siores says, could denote an increase to blood flow to a developing tumor.
Siores says his device would use passive microwaves, essentially bringing technology currently used to pinpoint the location of submarines and distant stars beneath the blouses of women to find breast cancer.
"If we can identify [cancer-related] transformations that emanate these heat signatures, we may be able to detect these cancers early," he said, adding that the device may even be used to evaluate the effectiveness of any breast cancer treatment its wearer is undergoing.
Siores adds that an audible or visual alarm would be incorporated into the bra, which would alert wearers to the potential need for further medical expert diagnosis and assessment.
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But physicians involved in the treatment of cancer say that while thermography has been studied as a possible way to detect cancer, as yet the accuracy of such methods leaves much to be desired.
"First of all, there are benign growths and nonmalignant inflammatory changes, which might also increase blood flow," said Anne Rosenberg, a breast surgeon at Philadelphia's Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
"Thermography has been around for 20 years, but has not been sensitive or specific enough to replace traditional imaging, such as mammography," Rosenberg said. "This technique of using the microwave antennae to pick up and record temperature changes in the breast, with an alarm if the threshold is exceeded, would need to be validated in a clinical trial to determine whether it is sensitive or specific with regard to identifying cancers … since not all of these temperature changes will be due to a cancer."
Jay Brooks, chairman of the Department of Hematology/Oncology at Ochsner Health System in New Orleans, agrees, adding that the method "sounds somewhat speculative, since most cancers are less than one centimeter [in diameter]." A device that could reliably detect the presence of such small tumors lurking beneath the tissues of the breast would have to be tremendously sensitive.
And in addition to concerns over the sensitivity of such a device, Robertson worries about its specificity — in other words, its ability to distinguish a temperature change from breast cancer from other unrelated temperature changes.
"Not only would it give a false sense of security until a cancer would become a certain size, but wouldn't it also make more anxiety as the alarm would sound?" she said.
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Siores is the first to admit that the smart bra is still very much an idea in development; a prototype is expected only next year.
"We need to measure the technology against known techniques, namely ultrasound and mammograms," he said.
And he adds that it would be a mistake to view the smart bra as a substitute for routine mammograms and other diagnostic techniques. "We do not claim that," Siores said.
But at a time when researchers are devoting their attention to proven methods of breast cancer detection, such as mammograms and ultrasound, both Brooks and Rosenberg agree that the smart bra is unlikely to garner widespread support because of its speculative nature.
Regardless of the eventual fate of the smart bra, however, Rosenberg says early detection is an important step when it comes to beating breast cancer.
"Clearly, we realize that early [detection] is the key to better survival for women who develop breast cancer and so researchers look for ways to find cancers at the earliest stage," she said. "Traditional approaches include mammography, and now MRI, along with physical examination."