Scientists are now developing an “electronic skin” that feels and images small lumps that fingers can miss. Knowing the size and shape of a lump could allow for earlier identification of breast cancer, which could save lives. The device has been tested on a breast model made of silicone.

Research scientists Ravi F. Saraf, PhD, and Chieu Van Nguyen, PhD, both of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, point out that early diagnosis of breast cancer, the most common type of cancer among women, can help save lives. But small masses of cancer cells are not always easy to catch. Current testing methods, including MRI and ultrasounds, are sensitive but expensive. Mammography is imperfect, especially when it comes to testing young women or women with dense breast tissue.

Clinical breast examinations performed by medical professionals as an initial screening step are inexpensive, but typically do not find lumps unless they are at least 21 mm in length, which is about four-fifths of an inch. Detecting lumps and determining their shape when they are less than half that size improves a patient’s survival rate by more than 94%.

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Some devices already mimic a manual examination but their image quality is poor, and they cannot determine a lump’s shape, which helps doctors figure out whether a tumor is cancerous. Saraf and Nguyen wanted to fill this gap.

Toward that end, they made a kind of electronic skin out of nanoparticles and polymers that can detect, feel and image small objects. To test how it might work on a human patient, they embedded lump-like objects in a piece of silicone mimicking a breast and pressed the device against this model with the same pressure a clinician would use in a manual examination. They were able to image the lump stand-ins, which were as small as 5 mm and implanted as deep as 20 mm. Saraf said the device could also be used to screen patients for early signs of melanoma and other cancers.

Their device was described in an article in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces (2014; doi:10.1021/am5046789).