Simply wonderbra

18. December 2007

Since the ECG T-shirt has not really become a money spinner up to today, clever researcher are going one layer below. In the future, a bra is supposed to watch over it whether she might have breast cancer. Now we are just waiting for the mobile biopsy.

It is sort of hard to imagine. A scientist at a renowned university standing at his lab table and preparing a bra? But that is just how it should have worked at the Centre for Materials Research and Innovation at Bolton University in England. The last couple of months, a group of material researchers around Professor Elias Siores has pushed a development stepping up to defeat breast cancer – with microwaves instead of X-rays. We are talking about a real wonderbra, an intelligent bra pushing the panic button if the wearer develops breast cancer.

Cancer communicates via microwave

Whoever assumes now, that the developers shrank a mammographic scanner or an MRI, is not quite wrong, but not quite right either. Siores' Smart Bra does not work with X-rays or magnetic resonance, but with microwaves. Those are not sent, but recorded by an antenna woven into the fabrics of the bra. The information about the recorded microwaves is transmitted via conducting polymers to a control unit analyzing the data.
Heat detection is the principle. Since the temperature of cancer tissue is different from the one in healthy mammary gland tissue, tumors can be detected “by thermometer”. Well, it is not just simple temperature measuring. The “Delta” – i. e. temperature fluctuations within the tissue – is the more interesting and relevant part. After all, nobody wants to get alert from a woman just doing her sports. “Almost always the metabolic activity and circulation is higher in the surrounding of precancerous lesions than in healthy breast tissue”, explains Siores. “With its high sensitivity the microwave antenna discovers those temperature fluctuations.”

Coming soon to your lingerie shop…

Because the technology used is so simple, Siores is confident that the Smart Bra will be offered soon, although not for Christmas business 2007 yet: “We expect the bra going into production within the next couple of years”, say its inventor. He points out that the garment could be used to supervise the effectiveness of an anti-tumor therapy as well. “There are no health risks and we don't believe that such a bra will cost a whole lot more than a normal one.”
Admittedly: It would not be the first Smart Bra for early cancer detection developed by material scientists that flops commercially. A few years ago, a couple of Australian researchers designed a sports bra with sensors supposed to actively limit the breast movement during fitness training. We never heard about that one again. And those reconsidering the latest Smart Bra from England will come up with quite a few questions as well making a use on a broad basis rather unattractive after all. For one thing, false alarms cannot be ruled out when using thermo-sensitive textiles. And a bra suddenly giving cancer alert during Tschaikowsky's “Schwanensee Ballet” just because the spectator's blood is stirring with emotions – that bra might find little acceptance in the long run. And even if the whole things works without making any “background music”: What exactly is she supposed to do when the bra is telling her in the evening that today she had three breast cancer warnings? Go to bed and get some rest? Or run to the next mammography early?

Now it's the turn of the health insurance companies

At least here is a hint for a field of application: While women taking the mammography screening serious would not really benefit from the addition warning bell, women not attending the screening might be a different story. But one question still remains: Would a declared opponent of screening buy a bra “smelling” somewhat like preventive medicine? But perhaps a model used successfully in the Netherlands might help: Whoever does not go to the cervical cancer-screening gets an unsolicited rapid test for human papillomarvirus by mail. If just one German health insurance company would delight women boycotting the breast cancer screening with a set of bras – trusting that the women will eventually will be “boiled soft” by all the alarms and show up at the real screening? One issue is the cup size. But perhaps the electronic health record might help…

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