3D Printed Wearable Ultrasound Shows Promise for Early Breast Cancer Detection

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Researchers at MIT used 3D printing to pioneer a groundbreaking wearable ultrasound device specifically for the early detection of breast cancer. This landmark invention underscores the vast potential of 3D printing applications and aims to improve survival outcomes by facilitating earlier tumor detection.

A significant concern in the realm of breast cancer detection is the occurrence of interval cancers – tumors that develop between regular mammogram appointments. These account for 20 to 30 percent of breast cancer cases and are often more aggressive than tumors detected during routine scans. This pressing issue inspired MIT’s Canan Dagdeviren, an associate professor in MIT’s Media Lab and the senior author of the study, to visualize a diagnostic device that could be seamlessly integrated into a bra, enabling more frequent screenings for those at a higher risk.

Screening at your fingertips

The wearable diagnostic developed at MIT, dubbed cUSBr-Patch, consists of a flexible, 3D printed patch with “honeycomb-like openings” that offer comprehensive deep scanning and multi-angle breast imaging. Magnetically attachable to a bra, this patch houses an ultrasound scanner, allowing users to perform imaging anytime. Though based on conventional ultrasound technology, this miniaturized scanner incorporates a pioneering piezoelectric material, paving the way for its compact design.

What sets it apart is its real-time monitoring capability, ease of operation, and its seamless integration into everyday wear like bras. 3D printing played a critical part in crafting the patch. The nature-inspired device was fabricated using a Prusa i3 MK3S+ 3D printer and white TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane), and marble-colored PLA (polylactic acid) materials.

MIT’s 3D printed wearable diagnostic patch. Image courtesy of Canan Dagdeviren/MIT.

According to a paper published by the researchers in the journal Science Advances, the process involved intricate layering, switching materials midway, and strengthening connections with superglue. Specialized circular magnets, designed for a press-fit, were positioned within the patch, with all magnets oriented in a uniform direction. The patch was tailored to fit varying breast sizes, particularly for a participant who transitioned from a B to a D cup during pregnancy. Various magnets, both circular and rectangular, were strategically placed on the patch to facilitate attachment to a bra and the accompanying tracker, which is key for the imaging array.

The tracker itself was printed using an Elegoo Mars 2 resin printer with an acrylonitrile butadiene styrene – like photopolymer resin material and was post-processed for durability with UV curing. It was designed with a number of prongs for stability, and it incorporated magnets that aligned perfectly with those on the patch. These magnets, in conjunction with others sewn into the bra’s fabric, ensured the patch was correctly positioned over the breast. The tracker was then magnetically attached to the patch, allowing it to guide the imaging array correctly.

Equipped to image the entire breast from six different positions and angles, this scanner is user-friendly and doesn’t need any specialized training. Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of MIT’s School of Engineering,  the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and one of the authors of the study highlighted: “This technology provides a fundamental capability in the detection and early diagnosis of breast cancer, which is key to a positive outcome. This work will significantly advance ultrasound research and medical device designs, leveraging advances in materials, low-power circuits, AI algorithms, and biomedical systems.”

Proof of concept

In collaboration with the MIT Center for Clinical and Translational Research, the team successfully tested the device on a subject with a history of breast cysts. Impressively, the wearable patch was able to detect cysts as small as 0.3 centimeters in diameter, the typical size of early-stage tumors. Not only does this demonstrate the device’s potential in early detection, but it also reaffirms its ability to achieve resolutions similar to traditional ultrasound machines.

Catherine Ricciardi, the nurse director at MIT’s Center and an author of the study, said, “Access to quality and affordable health care is essential for early detection and diagnosis. As a nurse, I have witnessed the negative outcomes of a delayed diagnosis. This technology holds the promise of breaking down the many barriers to early breast cancer detection by providing a more reliable, comfortable, and less intimidating diagnostic.”

According to the study titled Conformable ultrasound breast patch for deep tissue scanning and imaging, the aim is to make breast cancer diagnosis more accessible, eliminating the need for frequent visits to imaging centers.

MIT created a flexible patch that can be attached to a bra, allowing the wearer to move an ultrasound tracker along the patch and image the breast tissue from different angles. Image courtesy of Canan Dagdeviren/MIT

Road ahead

While the current prototype needs to be connected to a standard ultrasound machine for viewing the images, the MIT team is striving to develop a more compact imaging system roughly the size of a smartphone. Their vision is a tool that can be used repeatedly at home, especially benefiting those at higher risk for breast cancer or those with limited access to regular screenings.

In future iterations, researchers aim to introduce “size-customizable patches with multiple 1D arrays,” eliminating the need for manual scanning. The long-term goal is to enable daily self-screening for individuals, particularly for those at a heightened risk, and to make it easier to send this data, including results analyzed by AI, to medical professionals for fast reviews. Additionally, they anticipate these systems to be integrated with wireless communication, facilitating continuous clinical monitoring and fast detection if there are any irregularities.

At her aunt’s bedside, Canan Dagdeviren, then a postdoc at MIT, drew up a rough schematic of a diagnostic device that could be incorporated into a bra, allowing for more frequent screening of women at high risk for breast cancer. Image courtesy of Canan Dagdeviren/MIT

Breast cancer surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital Tolga Ozmen highlighted how this wearable ultrasound scanner can free women from the often inconvenient trips to imaging centers: “Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women, and it is treatable when detected early. One of the main obstacles in imaging and early detection is the commute that the women have to make to an imaging center. This conformable ultrasound patch is a highly promising technology as it eliminates the need for women to travel to an imaging center.”

Additionally, the team is looking into using AI to analyze and compare ultrasound images over time, which could provide more accurate diagnostics than a radiologist examining images taken years apart. Of course, the potential doesn’t end with breast cancer detection; the team has plans to adapt this technology to scan other parts of the body, with the future potential for a revolution in early cancer detection.

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