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A breakthrough in early detection of breast cancer?

With multiple benefits, an innovative high-tech sensor is a God-send for those who consider existing diagnostic tools as invasive, harmful, even carcinogenic, suggests a new research paper with contributions from ASU faculty

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Prof Moin Uddin, Apeejay Stya University
Prof Parikshit Vasisht, Apeejay Stya University

Every four minutes, an Indian woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, the most commonly occurring cancer among women around the world.  Early detection may lead to better health care and almost 70% of cases can be cured with well-defined treatment and protocols. In order to improve breast screenings, their outcomes and survival rate, early stage detection is critical. Now, a paper, titled “A Versatile Ultra-Wideband Radio Sensor for Early Stage Detection of Breast Cancer”, which has drawn appreciation at national and international scientific forums, is promising just that by developing an Ultra-Wideband Radio sensor for early stage detection of breast cancer. It is a non-invasive procedure that is complete within minutes. It is also less harmful and much less expensive than X-ray based diagnostic techniques, argue the researchers.
The paper, written by a team of researchers that includes senior faculty from the Department of Electronics and Communication, Apeejay Stya University, Gurugram including Professor Moin Uddin, Taruna Sharma, Munish Vasishath, Parikshit Vasisht, Amber Khan and Rajveer Singh Yaduvanshi, has been published in Mapan, a renowned journal brought out by the esteemed Springer Nature publishers and is listed in the respected Web of Science in the H-index category. Once it evolves from the research stage to implementation, it can impact the lives of more than 2.1 million women who suffer from breast cancer around the world.  We caught up with Professor Moin Uddin and Professor Parikshit Vasisht for an interview to discuss the potential for the technology, the drawbacks of existing diagnostic tools and how this sensor-based tool can be a ray of hope for thousands of women in rural India. Edited excerpts.

Why is early detection of Breast Cancer so important?

Professor Moin Uddin: According to a report by WHO in 2020,  breast cancer is the most commonly occurring cancer among women worldwide. About 2.10 million women are being affected each year globally, apart from the high mortality rate. In 2018 it was estimated that 6,27,000 patients died from breast cancer, which is approximately 16% of all cancer deaths among women. In order to improve breast screenings, their outcomes and survival rate, early stage detection is critical. The survival rate is 60% in India and 90% in the United States. Early detection may lead to better health care and almost 70% of cases can be cured with well-defined treatment and protocols.

Please tell us about the diagnostic techniques for breast cancer prevalent at present. What are their drawbacks in terms of patient discomfort and expense?

Professor Parikshit Vasisht : The diagnostic techniques commonly used at present include X-ray mammography, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and ultra-sound. A big drawback with the existing techniques is that they are really expensive. Of these, X-ray mammography in particular can be very painful for the patient. Also, most of these techniques are ionising in nature. For instance, ultrasound diagnosis and X-rays can harm deep tissues in the body. Since these techniques ionise the tissues, they can end up burning the soft tissue and cause cell damage. When the tissues are ionised, the cells begin to destruct. This can lead to rise in dead cells in the body, tumours and some of these non-benign tumours can even lead to cancer. That’s why it is not prescribed that a patient go for X-rays frequently, even for simple bone screenings.

Is it true that techniques such as mammography often fail to detect cancers at an early stage? Why does this happen?

Professor Moin UddinMammograms carried out on the basis of X-ray based technology can be harmful for the patient. In case of breast cancers, early detection is a difficult proposition. Mammography at times fails to detect early signs of cancer, especially in cases where the breasts have a high concentration of fat. By the time it is detected in such cases, the cancer has entered the third or fourth stage. Once the cancer is at such an advanced stage, the rate of mortality increases manifold. It becomes very difficult to treat.

Professor Parikshit VasishtApart from failing to diagnose cancers early, the low resolution of X-ray based techniques is also a challenge. Most of these techniques, including MRI and X-ray mammography, have poor resolution. At times, it can lead to false alarms. Because of bad resolution of the scan, a simple fat cell can be interpreted as a cancerous tumour. As a result, the patient may have to undergo elaborate interventions such as a biopsy.

What is the edge that the proposed Ultra-Wideband Radio Sensor for early stage detection of breast cancer has over other forms of diagnostics?

Professor Moin Uddin: To begin with, this new ultra-wide band (UWB) device is non-invasive and does not produce cancerous X-rays. It is a non-invasive practice that does not have any harmful effects on humans, as compared to X-raysWe are going to submit a proposal of Rs 1 crore about developing the sensor to the Department of Science and Technology (DST). The added advantage is that the device can be made portable if it is transported in medical vans to the hinterland or in remote areas of the country. Apart from this, it is an extremely low-cost device. The scan won’t cost more than Rs 30-40. It is also painless and non-intrusive. Owing to these qualities – portability, low cost and non-intrusiveness—screenings for early detection of cancer can be carried out at the mass level. This will be particularly beneficial to many women in rural areas who are shy and thereby reluctant to come to medical facilities for screenings.  This reticence can prove deadly, because detection of breast cancer requires regular and periodic screening. With this device, the screening for breast cancer will be done quickly, within a few minutes.  

Professor Parikshit VasishtIn this kind of breast cancer screening, the patient may not need to remove clothes. There is no requirement of a specialised attendant unlike an X-ray mammography or ultrasound, or an MRI scan. If the cancer is caught in the early stages, it can be cured completely. The ultra-wide band (UWB) device also has the inherent advantage that the resolution is bright and strong. Secondly, the sensitivity level is higher than the X-ray mammography and MRIs. In case the tumour is malignant the patient may need to undergo a Fine Needle Aspiration Cytology to determine the stage of the cancer.   

What has been the response to your findings regarding this device that promises early detection of breast cancer so far?

Professor Moin Uddin: Even before the physical implementation, our research is getting appreciation from many quarters, including those already working in the area. Our paper, published with the title “A Versatile Ultra-Wideband Radio Sensor for Early Stage Detection of Breast Cancer” has got appreciation at both national and international forums. At the global level, I have been invited to present it as a distinguished speaker at the 3rd Advanced Materials Science World Congress to be held in March, 2022 in London. Also, the editor-in-chief of Archives of Breast Cancer journal, has informed me that they have read with interest our publication in Mapan – Journal of Metrology Society of India in their last editorial board meeting and have officially requested me to write an invited article (especially original article) for their journal.

Professor Parikshit Vasisht Going forward, we are looking at portable scanning machines called vector network analysers that can be a very important device in the sensor measurement technique and can make the device portable.  We are working on making a special antenna for this. We are modifying the ultra-wide band antenna which works in the Lower European Band (3.7-7.4 GHz) that can be effectively used as a sensor for early stage breast cancer detection. The presented structure is a novel antenna which has average radiation efficiency of 90%, stable monopole radiation patterns throughout the operating bandwidth. With its small size it can be used as a wearable/On body sensor that can be used with modern-day medical devices implementing radar based microwave imaging.

At which stage is the research? By when can it reach consumers to benefit patients?

Professor Parikshit Vasisht : It is already in the second stage, because it has been getting appreciation from respected scientific journals and we have partly done the designing and development of the sensors. We have simulated the soft model of the breast-like tissue. Basically an antenna sensor is nothing but a radiator of electric fields. If these radiations get accepted or stored in a particular material, we can see the changes in the energy field. We call them reflection coefficients that are measured with an instrument called the vector network analyser. We have described in this paper how we have simulated a breast phantom where the cancer cell was made up of petroleum jelly. The skin cells and fat cells were made of different material such as gelatin and corn syrup for the tissue model and then we introduced a spherical tumour in the phantom made up of petroleum jelly. We observed the changes in the reflection co-efficient graph.  These are ultra-wide band frequencies. Generally the lower European bands start with a frequency of 3 gigahertz. The microwave radiations are the non-ionising radiations, which are used in our cellphones as well.

Professor Moin Uddin: As a next step, we are going to present the paper to the Department of Science and Technology (DST), the granting agency in the country. The implementation of this technique requires a high-end state of the art sophisticated lab. To work on this technique with a grant from a granting agency gives us an upper hand, since we don’t need to prove its validity once more. We are in the final stages of completing the proposal and we will soon write to DST about it.  In the next two years, we will try to implement the technique with the hardware and develop the product. In the next 3-4 years it may reach the consumer. Our objective is also to conduct a survey about breast cancer in the urban and rural areas of the state of Haryana. That’s what we have proposed in our research proposal.

“Owing to these qualities —speed, low cost and non-intrusiveness — screenings for early detection of cancer can be carried out at the mass level. This will be particularly beneficial to many women in rural areas who are shy and thereby reluctant to come to medical facilities for regular screenings essential for early detection of cancer.”

-Prof Moin Uddin, Apeejay Stya University

Aasheesh Sharma is a seasoned journalist with an experience of more than 25 years spread over newspapers, news agencies, magazines and television. He has worked in leadership positions in media groups such as Hindustan Times, India Today, Times of India, NDTV, UNI and IANS. He is a published author and his essay on the longest train journey in India was included in an anthology of writings on the railways, brought out by Rupa Publications. As the Editor of Apeejay Newsroom, he is responsible for coverage of the latest news and developments in the Apeejay institutions. He can be reached at [email protected]

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