Elias Siores' bra would look like the ones women wear now, but hidden antennae capture heat profiles from inside the breast and reveal potential trouble spots.
Bras: the mortal enemy of breasts.
Long have these foes battled in a struggle between freedom and control over unruly subjects. But they may unite to fight an even greater nemesis: breast cancer, the second most diagnosed cancer among women.
A bra in development at the Institute for Materials Research and Innovation at the University of Bolton, United Kingdom, can alert patients when it senses an increased risk of breast cancer.
“It’s not a diagnosis,” says institute director Elias Siores. “It is a tool that helps you decide whether you should go to the doctor or not.”
So when can women expect to find this bra in a Victoria’s Secret or another store?
“We are continuing the research,” he says. “And if a suitable commercial partner appears that wants to take it to commercialization, we will be happy to discuss it.”
The bra looks conventional enough, but it has a web of small antennae built into it. These pick up the electromagnetic radiation from body heat and alert you to slight changes that occur when cancer cells form.
The cells in your body are dividing. But where normal cells divide at a normal rate, cancer cells divide uncontrollably. This explosion of cells, which can potentially become a tumor, needs more blood to stay alive. Since the body hasn’t realized these cells will one day become suicide bombers, it gives them all the supplies they need.
The increased blood flow, however, brings increased warmth.
It’s minute, says Siores. Mere fractions of a degree. But this is exactly what the antenna system recognizes.
In addition to potentially finding tumors, the bra can indicate how effective chemotherapy is on known cancerous cells.
If the tumor is still growing, “it gives off heat, then we pick it up with the equipment, which means the chemotherapy is not working,” says Siores. Visualizations from the thermographic (heat-sensing) technology could also help doctors perform better biopsies by increasing the location’s accuracy.
Granted, all bodies produce temperature change over time. Women exercise, go through menstrual cycles and occasionally lounge in the sun – all of which change their heat profile. And thermography isn’t perfect – the bra produced a false negative and missed the cancer 25 percent of the time, according to Siores.
The number seems high, but mammograms have a 10 to 20 percent chance of a false negative, according to Sheryl Gabram, deputy director of the Georgia Cancer Center for Excellence at Grady. “Just because you get a mammogram doesn’t mean you are free and clear,” she said, emphasizing that mammography is still the most effective current technology for diagnosing breast cancer.
“I don’t think thermography will replace mammography anytime soon,” said Gabram, who is not involved in the development of the antenna bra.
The bra is designed to supplement mammograms, not replace them. If a woman wore the bra for months and suddenly noticed a hotspot, she could head to the doctor for an examination.
“Four or five years before being identified by CAT scans or mammograms, we are able to say, ‘this may be some kind of defect, like a tumor,’” says Siores.
Gabram was concerned that the bra could lead to costly, unnecessary testing, and wanted to see more research and studies before throwing her weight behind the technology.
“On the other hand,” she said, “I’m very much in favor of pushing the envelope to find ways to search for breast cancer.”
Gabram identified three at risk groups for whom thermography (and Siores’ bra) could be particularly useful. These are women in developing countries who lack access to mammograms, predisposed women (such as those with a family history of the disease), and women who have had the disease and need to be screened for recurrences.
Thermographic imaging – and even the idea of a cancer-seeking bra – has been developing for decades. Hugh Simpson invented a similar undergarment called the Chronobra over 10 years ago, according to an article in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology patented an antenna system for cancer detection in 2000.
Siores’ team is attempting to increase accuracy of the technology while keeping it compact enough to wear. A removable metallic mesh net can help block interference coming from a computer or cell phone, ensuring that scientists collect only the data that they want.
Previous criticisms of thermography among the oncological community stemmed from the superficial nature of the data gathered. While earlier types of imaging used infrared waves to measure only heat on the surface, Siores’ bra uses microwave frequencies that gather heat profiles from inside the body.
Because the frequencies of microwaves allow scientists to target a certain depth in the body, the antenna technology can analyze more than just breasts.
Scientists are using it to measure heart health and the buildup of plaque in a test program involving rabbits. Results should be published in an upcoming cardiology journal, according to Siores. There are also plans to start collecting microwave data as women go through pregnancy.
“You never know,” Siores says. “We may find information regarding the well-being of babies.”