Could Engineer-Invented Technology Eliminate the Mammogram?

Breast cancer risk analysis system would reduce false positives and may allow some women to avoid annual mammograms.

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Engineere-developed technology analyzes breast cancer risk. Photo Credit: williami5 on Flickr via Creative Commons

Can certain women skip their annual mammogram? A group of engineers think so; they’ve created a computer-based detection system that could potentially allow low-risk populations to increase the intervals between tests.

“We’re creating a breast cancer risk analysis system,” explained Wei Qian, an electrical engineer with the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). “It will be able to inform doctors about the patient’s risk of developing cancer within a few years.”

A 70 percent success rate 

The system is still in development, but has – with a 70 percent success rate – predicted which women would go on to develop breast cancer during their next mammogram and which women would not. The goal of the project is to allow certain patients to avoid annual mammograms.

“For low risk populations, it would be better to increase the interval between their screenings,” said Wenqing, a doctoral electrical engineering student. “Mammograms frequently generate false positives and can be an unnecessary mental burden.”

How the risk analyses system works 

So how does the system work? To start, a patient would have to get an initial mammogram. The x-rays from the test would run through the engineer-invented technology, which analyzes texture and breast density. The latter is crucial for predicting breast cancer risk.

Finally, the system calculates overall density and outlines at-risk areas. It can also identify differences between the two breasts. “Breasts are naturally symmetrical,” said Quan. “But if there’s a loss of balance between the two, that could signify a high possibility that a change is occurring.”

The machine would place patients into high and low-risk categories. The engineers say categorising patients could make screenings more cost-effective and efficient, not to mention less strenuous for women who may not need annual tests. 

Affordable genetic screening 

The news comes on the heels of a new affordable genetic screening process for breast cancer, which has been developed with the help of engineers. The Color Test from Color Genomics is a genetic sequencing process that costs $249 – a far cry from the usual $4,000 price tag for similar procedures.

The group behind this new test is an interdisciplinary team of professionals from fields ranging from computer science (including a former Google engineer), distribution learning, genetics and product design.

According to the company, roughly 10 to 15 percent of breast and ovarian cancers have a genetic link (among the best known genes are BRCA1 and BRCA2). Women with a genetic mutation in BRCA1 are significantly more susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer than those who don’t have the mutation. In addition to BRCA1 and BRCA2, the Color Test analyzes about a dozen other genes that potentially predispose women to breast and ovarian cancer.

Using laboratory automation 

“Building a high-quality, but affordable test required significant investments in software design, big data, bio-informatics, CLIA compliance, laboratory automation, and genetics,” said Othman Laraki, Color’s President. “By marrying multiple emerging disciplines, we have developed something many did not think was possible – a high-quality, yet affordable, genetic test for BRCA1, BRCA2, and 17 other key genes.”

It appears the medical field is increasingly looking towards engineer-developed technology. Both the mammogram study and the new Color Test suggest the lines between science and engineering are constantly blurring.