U of U develops a tool that can be used frequently in breast cancer diagnoses

Nov 30, 2021, 6:33 PM | Updated: Dec 1, 2021, 3:05 pm
Mammogram technician Niki Keene, right,  demonstrates a mammogram on Kathy Dalton as Optum Care Net...
Mammogram technician Niki Keene, right, demonstrates a mammogram on Kathy Dalton as Optum Care Network Utah conducted an open house to introduce a new mobile clinic in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 23, 2021. It will provide a range of adult health and wellness services. including diagnostics for chronic illnesses. Photo credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY  — A new tool developed by the University of Utah could allow for breast cancer screenings at a younger age. It could also cut radiation exposure that comes with your typical mammogram.

The new process could be, and it’s also a lot more comfortable.

How the new technology works 

“One of the problems with the mammogram is since it involves low doses of radiation, they are not typically used in women younger than 40 years old,” electrical and computer engineering Assistant Professor Benjamin Sanchez-Terrones said. “That doesn’t mean those women could not potentially develop breast cancer, it’s just that they don’t get typically screened for it.” 

This technology, developed with local start-up IONIQ Sciences, sends a low-voltage current through the body to detect lymphatic changes. The patient holds one electrode, and a doctor uses another contained inside a handheld probe and touches it to different parts of the body.

“We can obtain an indication of whether a patient may have breast cancer without involving radiation,” said Sanchez-Terrones. 

Here’s why cutting down radiation is so important: Continued exposure can lead to cancers by itself. That’s why women usually get screened later in their lives — to minimize exposure to harmful chemicals. 

“It’s not like it’s a ton of radiation,” said Sanchez-Terrones. “The idea would be that people typically not screened because of their age, the doctors have this technology available and don’t have to compromise their patient’s safety over the course of years.”

How it feels and if it’s accurate

This technology takes double the time of your typical mammogram, but Sanchez-Terrones says the current is so low, the likelihood of a patient feeling anything is unlikely. 

“The amount of electricity supplied to the body is entirely painless,” he said. “It’s not invasive in any way. It’s just applying pressure against your skin.”
And if you’ve ever received electric stimulation while going to physical therapy, he says it’s not even close to that.
“The way electrical stimulation works is it applies a low-frequency current,” he said. “The frequency and amplitude of this current are lower compared to the amount of current [in electrical stimulation]. It’s like thousand times below the lowest level they use for electric stimulation — so low you would not perceive any pain at all.”
The procedure doesn’t have as high an accuracy as a normal mammogram — but Sanchez-Terrones’ early clinical study found it’s 70% effective at predicting if a patient has cancer, and 75% if a patient doesn’t. A mammogram can be 80% to 98% effective in detecting breast cancer in older women.
“The likelihood of success at fighting cancer depends on when you act on it,” Sanchez-Terrones said. “We are not attempting to replace mammograms, but rather work together so that those people who can’t get the [mammogram]… can have a screening.” 

How this changes the game for breast cancer patients

Six of the women in the clinical study were women treated for breast cancer. Sanchez-Terrones says his technology allows those currently receiving treatment for breast cancer to get screenings during treatment, without exposure to further radiation. 

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are commonly used for treating breast cancer. Mammograms are typically done annually

The Federal Drug Administration gave the device a Breakthrough Therapy Designation, and Sanchez-Terrones and IONIQ applied for full approval.

The risk of breast cancer 

The risk of getting breast cancer increases with age, but men and women alike can get it any time. Research shows nearly 7% of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are under the age of 40.

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U of U develops a tool that can be used frequently in breast cancer diagnoses