Viterbi develops method to detect breast cancer


In conjunction with the Vitebri School of Engineering, Mahta Moghaddam, a professor of electrical engineering, and her research team are working on new imaging and treatment for breast cancer through the use of microwaves.

Breast cancer will affect one in eight women, and it is the second leading cause of death in women, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation’s website. Though risk factors have been identified for breast cancer, researchers are usually unable to pinpoint a single cause of breast cancer.

Research Assistant Professor John Stang, technical lead for the project, noted how past research showed opportunities to use microwaves to both treat and detect breast cancer. He has been working on this project for almost four years.

“Our research started out of research that was done in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, showing contrast that existed in the microwave properties of breast cancer,” Stang said.

He stressed how breast cancer research is often motivated by emotional intentions.

“Everyone has their own personal relationship with breast cancer, so I think that’s also part of the appeal [of the project],” Stang said.

Stang explained exactly how this new system is utilizing microwaves.

“The system that we are working on now is a combined imagery and therapy system. It is using microwaves, a single modality to do both the image guidance and the therapy,” Stang said.

This new system is proving to be a pioneering technology in the breast cancer field.

“There currently aren’t any systems like that that are using a single modality to guide the focused heating,” Stang said.

The team wants to be able to “cook” the cancerous tissue instead of having to surgically remove it. This will, in turn, reduce the recovery time.

“The system started out as independent projects where we were doing microwave imaging,” Stang said. “The idea was to have an alternative to mammograms.”

The team was motivated to provide an alternative as current mammograms use ionizing radiation, which their innovative cancer treatment would not.

Microwaves are much safer than ionizing radiation, and there would be no pain or discomfort involved with the procedure since the breasts would not need to be flattened as they are in current mammograms. Instead, patients would lie down with their breasts placed in two imaging tunnels.

In addition to Viterbi, the researchers will also work with the Keck School of Medicine and Dr. Eugene Chung, an M.D. who focuses more on the medical aspect of the project.

Currently, the researchers have created a “laboratory prototype,” but this prototype cannot be used in a clinical setting.

“We have explored contracting out a building of something that would be manufactured with a company with medical history,” Stang said. “It is more advantageous to go through a company that has the experience and the track record.”

The laboratory is currently in conversation with a company in order to create the prototype.

The clinical prototype will have amplifiers that lead to several antennae aimed at various angles. These antennae will allow the device to focus the microwaves on specific parts of the breast tissue, allowing the researchers to cook the cancerous tissues the way that a microwave cooks food.

Stang hopes a prototype will be ready for use in a clinical setting in the next few years.

  • Jim

    Who owns this technology? Does USC stand to benefit financially from this discovery in their lab?