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Sensors Thinner Than Plastic Wrap Could Detect Breast Cancer

Illustration for article titled Sensors Thinner Than Plastic Wrap Could Detect Breast Cancer

To beat cancer, early detection is crucial. Now, a team of Japanese and American scientists has revealed extremely thin sensors that could one day be built into skin-tight, tumor-detecting gloves for doctors, who can share digitized findings with other physicians.

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See, nowadays, lots of scientists are interested in flexible electronics, since those materials can lead to non-invasive, super accurate, wearable sensors. And while we’ve figured out how to make tiny sensors actually bend, we haven’t gotten them to accurately measure pressure, since the sensors became distorted and ineffective the more they got wrinkled. But this new research, published this week in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, suggests a leap forward.

The team behind this project included scientists from Harvard and the University of Tokyo. Using organic transistors and electronic switches made from organic material like carbon, the team crafted pressure-sensing nanofibers, and entangled them to make a grid-like, porous, light structure. The result is pressure sensors that are eight micrometers in thickness, or .0003 inches, which is thinner than plastic wrap. They could easily wrap around your fingers, and can conform to the shape of doctors’ hands, and measure pressure of 144 locations at once, helping docs determine if what they’re palpating is a tumor.

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What’s more: These sensations can be digitized and shared as records to other physicians in follow-up exams, so they have a better idea of what lumps and bumps to be on the lookout for.

For a material so small, it could be a very big development in the battle against some very dangerous diseases.

Illustration for article titled Sensors Thinner Than Plastic Wrap Could Detect Breast Cancer

[Nature Nanotechnology via Japan Times]

Images: Someya Laboratory, University of Tokyo

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DISCUSSION

Dr Emilio Lizardo

As of yet, there is no proof that detecting breast cancer any earlier than a standard mammogram does will improve survival rates. 3D mammogram, Computer Assisted Detection, Tomosynthesis, Ultrasound, and MRI all claim to be more sensitive than mammogram and probably are. However, that does not necessarily translate into improved survival. There is a threshold below which detecting things earlier gains no benefit and increased sensitivity only increases false positives which increases biopsies, complications, anxiety, and cost without any corresponding benefit in survival. It is possible we have reached that threshold with mammogram and that all these newer, more sensitive, more expensive tests are not improving anything of worth.

There are already good arguments related to the harms of overdiagnosis of breast cancer based on mammogram alone. It is very clear that not all breast cancers detected today would be life threateneing if they were not detected and it is also clear that we can not always differentiate which cancers are more likely to cause harm, although we are getting better at that. Never forget that the ultimate goal of any worthwhile screening program is not early detection, but improved disease specific and overall morbidity and mortality. Early detection is a surrogate endpoint that often correlates with more important endpoints, but not always.