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University of Waterloo researchers develop method to detect early-stage breast cancer in two minutes

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University of Waterloo researchers say they’ve developed a method to detect breast cancer in women early enough for them to receive lifesaving treatment.

The technology aims to be more accurate, cheaper and safer than common diagnostic tools used now, such as X-ray mammography, ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

“Mammography is not fully effective, especially for women with dense breasts,” said Omar Ramahi, lead researcher and a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering.

Ramahi has been looking at ways to enhance early detection since 2001. He’s noticed the gaps that exist in current practices. For starters, he says X-ray mammography can only be performed on a patient once a year or every other year.

“That is a long period. Sometimes cancer advances in that time,” he said.

Ramahi also pointed to the health risks associated with frequent testing using current practices.

“There’s potentially hazardous radiation,” said Ramahi.

So his team of researchers has worked to find a better option. They’ve created a diagnostic device that somewhat mimics X-ray mammography, but without its drawbacks.

“The summary of that discovery is that very low frequency behaves like X-rays,” he said.

Low-frequency electromagnetic energy is emitted from an antenna. Once the energy penetrates a patient’s breasts it is picked up by a circuit board.

“It also uses artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance the interpretation,” he said.

AI interprets the pictures from the circuit board, removing the need for a human technician to review the results. And those results are detected rather quickly.

“An immediate impression,” said Ramahi. "One to two minutes."

Ultimately, the hope is to detect breast cancer in women early enough so they can receive lifesaving treatment.

“They will feel much more at ease and the chances of detection are much easier and much higher,” Ramahi said.

Ramahi and his team are now hoping to get Health Canada's approval so their system can be tested on human subjects. The cost of each device is currently $2,000 to $3,000, but the team believes they can bring the price down even more.

They’re hopeful the device will become accessible enough for women to use with the same convenience and frequency as in-pharmacy blood pressure testing.

“I am very optimistic this can be a big game changer.”

More information about this work can be found in their research paper.

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