WASHINGTON -- A device for detecting early stages of breast cancer is being developed at the University of Pennsylvania and partly funded by the Defense Department.
Officials say the device has the potential to save some of the thousands of lives breast cancer claims each year.
The device, a pager-sized handheld unit known as "iFind," has been in the development process since 1993, and a prototype is now being tested, said Col. Janet R. Harris, director of congressionally directed medical research programs at Fort Detrick, Md.
The device is designed to be an accessory to self-breast exams, Harris said. It works by sending a near-infrared light through the breast tissue, looking for areas of high blood flow, which can indicate an abnormality. Britton Chance, emeritus professor of physics and radiology at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in Philadelphia and developer of the device, said the light is absorbed by the extra blood in cancerous areas, therefore sending less light back to the device. If an abnormality is found, the device sounds an alarm and records the data and can be taken to a doctor for evaluation, Harris said.
The near-infrared light is safe and can be used often without risk, Harris said.
The goal is to market the device as a home-care item that would be available in drug stores and convenience stores, Chance said. If research continues as planned, the device, which will probably cost about $100, could be available in one or two years, he said.
Initial results from research on the device have shown to be accurate more than 90 percent of the time, Harris said. This device promises to be a very useful tool in the fight against breast cancer, she said.
"The research has been very, very promising," she said. "If we can detect problems earlier, there is a greater chance we can successfully treat them."
The DoD funding for this device is part of the DoD Breast Cancer Research Program, which began in 1992 when the Breast Cancer Coalition lobbied Congress for additional funding for research and prevention of breast cancer, Harris said. The program was assigned to the DoD because of its long history of biomedical research, she said.
Each year, an integration panel made up of scientists, breast cancer survivors and other experts meets to determine where the gaps are in research about breast cancer, Harris said. Based on these findings, a program announcement is put out soliciting proposals from scientists. The list of proposals then goes back to the integration panel, and the members decide which proposals best meet the program's goal of detecting, preventing and treating breast cancer, she said.
The DoD program's unique partnership between the military, breast cancer survivors and scientists makes for strong, well-rounded results, Harris said.
"Our belief is that individuals working together and disciplines working together have a better chance of finding answers than one scientist alone," she said.