Researchers in Japan Develop Safer Breast Cancer Tests

The new 3D method uses a very weak microwave that doesn't emit high-level radiation and can find much smaller tumours than regular a mammogram.

17.09.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo by Toronto Star
Photo by Toronto Star

Breast cancer is like any cancer: the earlier a tumour is caught, the greater the chance of survival. In most countries, therefore, women over 40 are regularly testing for sight of any malignant growths.

But, for some women, having a mammogram — specialized medical imaging that uses a low-dose x-ray system to see inside the breasts — can be really painful. The breast is sandwiched between two metal plates during the procedure. And that’s without mentioning the small — although not insignificant — risks associated with exposure to radiation, general accuracy issues, or the fact that mammograms can sometimes fail to distinguish tumours from breast tissue.

But now a Japanese maths expert — acclaimed for improving maintenance in road tunnels — may have developed a safer and less painful way to conduct such testing.

Kenjiro Kimura is Professor of Chemical and Condensed Matter Physics at Kobe University. His world-renowned understanding of how microwaves scatter has become the basis for a new method of determining the shape of objects.

This was put to use in the wake of a national tragedy that saw concrete slabs fall from Sasago tunnel on the Chuo Expressway in Yamanashi Prefecture and killed nine people. Maintenance personnel can now use Kimura’s tech to identify and direct resources towards parts of a tunnel that are scratched, cracked, and in urgent need of attention.

Kenjiro Kimura and the machine. Credit: Japan Australia Business Creators

Kimura has since been a key figure in research on how microwaves can be used to create a highly-accurate 3D image of breast cancer tumours.

The new procedure, which is undergoing rigorous testing in Japan, works by sliding a device that emits low-level microwaves over the surface of a patient’s breast. There’s no clamp or high-level radiation — just the smooth sliding of a machine.

Japan Australia Business Creators reports that the 3D method is so accurate that technicians can find cancerous tumours which are 0.5mm in size — a feat that conventional mammography machines struggle with.

The researchers say the method is safe: tests have proved accurate, and the microwaves emitted by the device are 0.1% of the power of those used by mobile phones.

The only drawback is that the technology can only be used to detect breast cancer. Microwaves can pass through fatty tissue which makes up the breasts, but not through muscle.

The idea, according to newspaper Asahi, is to submit an application for approval as a medical device after clinical tests, which will take place next fiscal year. This would then hopefully permit the technology to be commercialised from autumn 2021.

“In the breast, a tumour reflects back the microwave as though it was a mirror,” Kimura explained. “This is the ideal method to use in detecting breast cancer among women.”

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