Is a New Heat Sensing Bra the Breast Medicine?

First Warning Systems, Inc.

I'm usually satisfied when my bra gives me a little extra lift. Now there's one that not only lifts, it separates - the healthy breast tissue from the unhealthy breast tissue, that is.

The makers of the First Warning Systems bra claim it can detect cancer in its earliest stages by continually monitoring the breasts for temperature changes associated with growing tumors. When a series of sensors embedded in the cups detect abnormal heat patterns, they send a signal to alert doctors to the possible presence of cancer cells.

Talk about your wonder bra!

In three separate clinical trials involving 650 women, the makers said the bra was able to identify the presence of tumors six years before traditional breast imaging did. It also scored a 92 percent level of accuracy in correctly classifying breast tissue as normal, benign, suspected for abnormalities, or probable for abnormalities. Routine mammograms have an accuracy rate of only 70 percent.

If this works as advertised, this is very exciting news for women who prefer to avoid the radiation associated with mammography, especially women with lumpy breasts or a family history of breast cancer. These women typically submit to mammography screenings more often than average and many are troubled by the health risks. And, since mammography isn't very good at picking up breast cancer in women under forty, this could be a better option for them too.

That is, if it works as advertised.

Unfortunately, the word from Dr. Deanna J. Attai, a spokeswoman for the American Society of Breast Surgeons, leaves my hopes sagging. So to speak, of course.

"The technology is promising but I'm a long way off from recommending it," she said. "We need a lot more comparison to other screening technologies, and we need to follow women over a much longer period of time to determine if this is actually a reliable test."

Attai said she has more questions than answers about thermography, the type of imaging related to the technology the bra uses. In a perfect world, the scan for breast hot spots would correlate with the results of mammogram, MRI and ultrasound tests. This is often not the case.

Attai said she has seen thermograms come back normal or showing marginal changes to breast tissue when a woman was then diagnosed with cancer through other means. She's seen a lot of false positives too, and she worries this can lead to a lot of unnecessary stress and expense.

"Even if we get an abnormal reading from thermal scanning, what do we do? If it's not giving you a clear enough picture and you're going to do all the other follow up tests anyway, I'm not sure I see the value."

Matt Benardis, First Warning's chief of operations, countered that the bra is a vast improvement over standard thermography because it takes repeated snapshots of heat changes over time rather than in a single instance. The idea is to start taking scans at around the age of 18 and then track differences in breast tissue over time.

"It's a dynamic look at what is taking place in the breast tissue. We can identify the disruptions in the breast tissue in a non-invasive way years before tumor presentation," he said, though he was quick to point out that it is an early detection system rather than a diagnostic tool.

If a scan turns something up, First Warning recommends the doctor take it from there with follow-up tests and standard diagnostic protocols.

Which is kind of Attai's point.

So, as much as I'd love some DD diagnostics to take the place of my mammogram pilgrimages, no study has found thermography to be an effective screening tool for finding breast cancer early. And Attia warns that women shouldn't use the bra as a substitute for any test a doctor recommends.

The bra will go on sale in Europe sometime in 2013 for around $200. The company says women will purchase the bra from their doctors, though as of now, the cost is not covered by insurance. On the positive side, though, it can be tossed in the wash after each use.