'Electronic skin' detects breast cancer
Image: Nguyen and Saraf, 2014/American Chemical Society

Screening for breast cancer is a relatively clumsy process of feeling around for lumps. MRI, mammograms and ultrasounds can improve accuracy but they are too expensive to be used during every check-up. 

Now, biomolecular engineers Ravi Saraf and Chieu Van Nguyen from the University of Nebraska in the US have devised a new way of detecting the disease. They've created an 'electronic skin' that could 'feel' through tissue and locate small lumps.

To test their design the scientists created an artifical breast from silicone and embedded tumour-like objects into it. Using the same pressure as would be applied during a manual exam, they were able to image lumps that were only 5 millimetres wide and 20 millimetres deep.

The 'skin' consists of a thin-film tactile device, which is made up of layers of gold nanoparticles, cadmium sulfide nanoparticles and polymers.

The devise measures the local deformation of the tactile film through contact pressure with breast tissue, in much the same way that a manual examiner would with their hands.

The study was published in the journal American Chemical Society Applied Materials & Interfaces last month. 

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women and early detection saves lives.

Mammography, which uses x-rays to examine human breast tissue, is unreliable, particularly for women with dense breast tissue. In most medical examinations doctors generally miss lumps that are smaller than 21 millimetres long. 

Finding lumps that are less than half that size improves survival chances by a whopping 94 per cent.