MIT researchers have designed a flexible ultrasound scanner that can be attached to a bra, potentially bringing breast imaging out of the hospital and increasing the chances of earlier cancer detection.
The device could help detect tumors when they are still in early stages, especially patients at high risk of developing breast cancer between routine mammography exams. The scanner is based on the same kind of ultrasound technology used in medical imaging centers, but incorporates a novel piezoelectric material that allowed the researchers to miniaturize the ultrasound scanner.
“We changed the form factor of the ultrasound technology so that it can be used in your home,” said Canan Dagdeviren, an associate professor in MIT’s Media Lab and the senior author of the study. "It’s portable and easy to use, and provides real-time, user-friendly monitoring of breast tissue."
Breast tumors that develop in between regularly scheduled mammograms — known as interval cancers — account for 20 to 30 percent of all breast cancer cases, and these tumors tend to be more aggressive than those found during routine scans.
In a study, the researchers found they could obtain ultrasound images with resolution comparable to that of the ultrasound probes used in medical imaging centers.
“My goal is to target the people who are most likely to develop interval cancer,” says Dagdeviren, whose research group specializes in developing wearable electronic devices that conform to the body. “With more frequent screening, our goal to increase the survival rate to up to 98 percent.”
To make the device wearable, the researchers designed a flexible, 3D-printed patch, which has honeycomb-like openings. Using magnets, this patch can be attached to a bra that has openings that allow the ultrasound scanner to contact the skin. The ultrasound scanner fits inside a small tracker that can be moved to six different positions, allowing the entire breast to be imaged. The scanner can also be rotated to take images from different angles, and does not require any special expertise to operate.
For now, seeing the images requires connecting the scanner to a conventional ultrasound machine, but their goal is to miniaturize the system to the size of a smartphone. They also envision using AI to analyze changes in the images over time.
The wearable ultrasound patch can be used over and over, and the researchers envision that it could be used at home by people who are at high risk for breast cancer and could benefit from frequent screening. It could also help diagnose cancer in people who don’t have regular access to screening.
MIT graduate student Wenya Du, research scientist Lin Zhang, Emma Suh ’23, and Dabin Lin, a professor at Xi’an Technological University, are the lead authors of the paper, which appeared in Science Advances.