To widen the age group of those who can get tested for breast cancer, University of Utah electrical and computer engineering assistant professor Benjamin Sanchez-Terrones, PhD, is developing a safe, painless diagnostic tool for detecting breast cancer that uses a low electrical current instead of radiation.

His research was recently published in the journal IEEE Access.

The research is based on the notion that cancer causes a person’s lymphatic interstitial fluid to change due to the increased presence of white blood cells and other physiological changes that happen to fight off the tumor.

“We suspect that the immune response is triggered in a person with cancer and produces lymphatic interstitial fluid that is less electrically conductive,” says Sanchez-Terrones, who is also a member of the Experimental Therapeutics program at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah.

To detect that change, Sanchez-Terrones along with Utah-based IONIQ Sciences, which develops cancer-screening technologies, are creating a diagnostic device with two electrodes that send a low-voltage electrical current through the body to detect these lymphatic changes.

The patient holds one electrode while the doctor touches different parts of the body with a handheld probe containing the second electrode. Each time the second electrode touches the skin, a painless electrical current runs from that electrode to the one the patient is holding.

The whole procedure takes less than 30 minutes, and measurements of the person’s conductivity are taken with each touch, and an algorithm in the device analyzes the data points and calculates a likelihood the patient has cancer or not.

While the risk of getting breast cancer is higher for older people, it can strike at any age. Studies show that 5% to 7% of females with breast cancer are under 40 years old.

An early clinical study conducted on 48 women, 24 with malignant breast cancer and 23 with benign lesions, showed the procedure was 70% effective at predicting whether a patient has cancer and 75% effective at determining if a person did not have cancer, Sanchez-Terrones says.

While these results are not as accurate as a mammogram, it does add an additional diagnostic tool for younger women and women with dense breast tissue who are otherwise advised not to get a mammogram because of their age or breast density.

Because this method uses low-voltage electricity instead of radiation like a mammogram, Sanchez-Terrones says it can be used repeatedly on women of any age. It therefore is designed to be used in conjunction with a mammogram to provide an even more accurate overall diagnosis. By using the new tool, more tests can be conducted without the risk of exposing the patient to more radiation from a mammogram.

Sanchez-Terrones and IONIQ Sciences have so far received a Breakthrough Therapy Designation for the breast cancer device from the Federal Drug Administration and will apply for full FDA approval.

Featured Image: University of Utah electrical and computer engineering assistant professor Benjamin Sanchez-Terrones, PhD, (pictured) is developing a diagnostic tool that uses safe, low-voltage electricity instead of radiation to detect breast cancer. The device therefore can be used repeatedly and on younger patients safely. Photo: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering