12 February 2012
Professor Ian Craddock from the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, along with Professor Alan Preece (Emeritus in School of Clinical Sciences), has led a team to create the world’s first radar breast imaging system.
The system called MARIA (Multistatic Array processing for Radiowave Image Acquisition) is a breast imaging technique that captures high-resolution, 3D images through the use of harmless radio waves. It could revolutionise the way women are screened for breast cancer and is ideal to scan women of all ages.
Whilst existing methods of detecting tumours (e.g. X-ray mammograms) help identify cancers that are too small for a woman to feel with her hands, allowing for effective treatment to be delivered earlier, they are not always ideal; being expensive and uncomfortable due to breast compression. More importantly, despite having a high success rate of catching abnormalities in older women, they are not always effective for younger women. With 7 per cent of women under the age 40 suffering from breast cancer each year, MARIA, which can detect tumours as small as 5 millimetres across, could create a significant rise in the number of anomalies that are detected in the earlier stages when tumours are more likely to respond to treatment.
MARIA captures an image of the breast by using an array of small antennas, similar to those inside a mobile phone, that are placed around a breast-shaped cup providing a comfortable space for the breast to sit whilst the woman lies on her front. A signal is then transmitted from each element in turn and is then received by all the other elements, effectively ‘sweeping’ the breast. With no compression of the breast and no exposure to ionizing radiation, MARIA is comfortable and intrinsically safe. Therefore the test can be repeated as often as necessary in order to identify cancers, potentially saving many more lives.
MARIA is now undergoing extensive clinical testing with various trials taking place at North Bristol NHS Trust (NBT). Mike Shere, Associate Specialist Breast Clinician at NBT says of the system “It takes less time to operate than a mammogram, approximately two minutes for both breasts compared with 30-45 minutes for an MRI, and like an MRI it provides a very detailed 3D image. Women love it as they compare it to a mammogram and find the whole experience much more comfortable”. Recent trials include younger women who have found a lump by self-examination; the younger women tend to have smaller, denser breasts which, Professor Craddock says, produce “a significant challenge. We’ve seen about 65 patients so far and I think it would be fair to say that no two women have been the same shape or size.”
The implications of the new technology are far-reaching. In particular the compact and low cost of MARIA will make it ideal for use in numerous alternative locations such as GP surgeries, diagnostic centres and mobile screening units, as well as in developing countries where the cost of introducing screening with X-rays is a major barrier to its introduction.
Mammogram technology is more effective when the breast’s fibrous tissue and glands have broken down leaving mainly fatty tissue. This occurs in older (post menopausal) women which is why national screening tests are targeted at women around the age of 50. The emphasis for younger women is on self-examination, often anomalies found using this method are more advanced, more aggressive and less likely to respond to treatment.
After initial testing of MARIA, with 20 volunteers, was promising the company Micrima Ltd was ‘spun out’ of the University.
Each year there are over 41,000 new cases of breast cancer in the UK alone. The disease is the most common cause of death in European women aged between 35 and 59.
The initial prototype took 90 seconds to complete 465 swept frequency measurements of the breast and was itself considered a remarkable feat of engineering; the new design completes 1700 such measurements in an astonishing ten seconds.