Breast cancer patients could soon get a BIONIC BREAST
Breast cancer patients could soon get a BIONIC BREAST that brings back sensation in the chest after a mastectomy
- An implant connected to electrodes will send signals to the brain when touched
- The device was based on previous research into restoring feeling in amputees
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Scientists are developing a ‘bionic breast’ device that could restore a sense of touch in breast cancer survivors who undergo mastectomies and reconstructive surgeries.
The implantable device being developed by researchers at the University of Chicago could benefit the roughly 3.5 million breast cancer survivors in the US who get mastectomies to prevent breast cancer from recurring or spreading to other parts of the body.
Many people who undergo the surgery, which removes one or both breasts and is often followed by receiving breast implants, lose sensation in their chest, which experts say can cause a great loss of sense of self and hinder a woman’s sexual satisfaction.
Women receiving the device would have flexible sensors inserted into their chest in two phases, during the initial mastectomy and then during reconstructive surgery using implants or tissues from the woman’s body, which would be connected to electrodes placed in the underarms.
When the breast is placed under any kind of pressure, which could be from hugging someone or during intimacy, the electrodes send signals to nerves that run between the ribs, which the brain interprets as sensation.
The above graph shows new cases of breast cancer among women as a rate per 100,000 people (light green line) and the death rate (as a dark green line). It reveals that deaths have been falling very gradually
The image shows how the ‘bionic breast’ would work. The pressure sensors (A) would be connected to a circuit inside the breast implant (B) which is linked to implanted electrodes (C) under the arm. The electrodes are then connected to the intercostal nerves that supply the breast
Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women, with around 42,000 fatalities every year.
Mastectomies are effective at preventing cancer from returning, but women who undergo the procedures often experience the same sense of physical and existential loss as amputees.
The sophisticated technology is based on work done by University of Chicago researcher Dr Sliman Bensmaia who passed away in August.
Dr Bensmaia had been working on a way to develop prosthetic limbs that could restore a realistic sense of touch to amputees and paralyzed patients.
Dr Stacy Tessler Lindau, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Chicago, is collaborating with neuroscientists and biomedical engineers to advance Dr Bensmaia’s work in leveraging the technology to restore nerve sensation to reconstructed breasts.
Dr Lindau said: ‘Even if their breasts are cosmetically restored, women still have many of the same experiences as a person who loses a limb, like feeling it’s no longer part of their body, total loss of sensation and even pain.
‘For many people, it’s not just a physical loss, but also a psychological and even existential loss.’
The first-of-its-kind implantable device aims to restore women’s mental wellbeing and sense of self that can be lost after undergoing surgery to remove the breasts and during cancer recovery.
The implantable sensor device would be inserted under the nipple of the reconstructed breast and connected to electrodes implanted near the armpits. The electrodes are then connected to branches of intercostal nerves located under the ribs.
The end goal is to restore response to touch, movement, pressure, and other stimuli by initiating signals to the brain that interpret those as sensations.
The implantable sensor will be flexible and soft, similar to human tissue so that it responds to even minor movements that compress or flex the breasts, such as taking deep breaths, hugging a loved one, or being intimate with a partner.
It will also be crucial for the team and the device’s lead developer Dr Sihong Wang to ensure the patient’s immune system will not reject the implant, which can happen after organ transplants.
Dr Wang said: ‘The natural movements that create changes in the shape of muscles and skin will also create changes in the sensor.
‘The overall goal is to create a sensor that is as soft and flexible as biological tissue, but with a chemical design that is compatible with the immune system that we can leave in the body of the patient for the rest of their life.’
The implantable device could benefit the roughly 3.5 million breast cancer survivors in the US who get mastectomies to prevent cancer from spreading to other parts of the body or coming back after bouts of remission
Checking your breasts should be part of your monthly routine so you notice any unusual changes. Simply rub and feel from top to bottom, feel in semi-circles and in a circular motion around your breast tissue to feel for any abnormalities
The team received a $4million grant from the National Institutes of Health to make the device and launch a human trial in patients about to undergo a mastectomy.
The plan is to implant the device in two stages, during the mastectomy and then during the first phase of reconstructive surgery.
The NIH will largely go toward creating the device and conducting proof-of-concept tests.
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Before the second stage of their reconstructive surgeries, the patients will visit the lab where the researchers will test the device by delivering electrical impulses through the electrodes.
Patients will report the sensations they feel and any pain or discomfort so researchers can finely tune the devices accordingly. Then, in the second stage of reconstructive surgery, the devices will be removed.
If successful in proofs of concept, the devices are expect to be trialed in more human subjects at which point they may remain implanted in the breasts for longer.
Dr Lindau said she came up with the idea for a ‘bionic breast’ after meeting with patients who discussed a loss of sexual function after mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.
Her team is currently interviewing women about their concerns after surgery and interactions with their doctors about what to expect.
Dr Lindau said: ‘We interview people who say, “I want the surgeon to tell me clearly that most of the nerves are being surgically removed along with the breast”.
‘One patient mentioned that her surgeon talked to her for 20 minutes before mentioning the word nipple. Patients want frank but compassionate communication with the recognition that what’s being lost is not just the feeling of sensation in the breast, but also the functioning of an important sexual organ.’
Thanks to advances in preventive measures such as mammograms, death rates FROM breast cancer have plummeted more than 40 percent since the 90s.
But cases are rising every year by about 0.5 percent. In 2023, an estimated 298,000 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer for the first time and more than 43,000 women will die.
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