New personal breast cancer screening device

An award-winning, innovation helps women perform breast self-examinations to screen for cancer
27 September 2022

Interview with 

Debra Babalola, Imperial College London


Breast cancer awareness pink ribbon


James Dyson - of cyclonic vacuum cleaner fame - runs an international design award competition that's intended to inspire the next generation of design engineers. In his words, it's a "chance for budding inventors to make a name for themselves." The results from the latest round have recently been announced, and the UK's winner was an entry from a team at Imperial College and the Royal College of Art. The concept they've come up with is called "Dotplot", and it's a handheld device to help women perform breast self-examination. Debra Babalola told Chris Smith what inspired them to come up with the concept in the first place, and how it works...

Debra - Dotplot is all about eliminating the confusion and the misconceptions around performing breast self checks. There are lots of tools out there to help people monitor different aspects of their health. But when it comes to breast health in particular, there aren't any at home solutions or devices that people can use to keep on top of what is going on within their breast tissue. And it's quite important, obviously, because breast cancer is so prominent. And of course, as the earlier you detect any developments within your breast, the better and people are relying on things like pamphlets and demonstrations and tutorials, which are quite limited in the guidance that they could provide. And so there's lots of different methods out there. It can be really confusing. People don't really know what they're supposed to be checking or where they're supposed to check or how they're supposed to do it. So we just wanted to make that process as clear as possible.

Chris - And how have you done that?

Debra - So we've developed Dotplot, which is a tool that women can use to check their breasts each month. It basically brings together a handheld device and a mobile app, and it will guide you through the self-check step by step. So what we have is that you would put in your general health information on the app. So like your menstrual cycle, your age, your height, that kind of thing, to help predict the best time for you to be doing these self checks. And then you will build a map of your upper chest or your torso using the device, you would select your breast shape, put your bra size and then use the device to rescale the baseline model that we've got over a standard torso. And once that's all set up, we will guide you through the self check by flashing on the point that you need to press the device on. And then once you've checked over that point, you'll go onto the next part of your breast. And then the next part, and the next part until you've covered all of the regions that need checking over.

Chris - So I'm thinking I've got a mobile phone in one hand, your gizmo in the other hand that I'm gonna use to do the self check. How big is the device that actually does the registration and the analysis of your tissue as you move it over your body?

Debra - Well, it fits within the palm of your hand and is similar to the size of an average bar of soap.

Chris - And that is talking to your mobile device.

Debra - Yes, it is by Bluetooth.

Chris - And so what the phone is doing is processing and telling the device record now, and the device is doing exactly that to make the measurements.

Debra - So the device is, what's kind of speaking to the phone. So the device will be emitting sound waves, which will then be used to take readings of the breast tissue. So you press it against your chest, it will take the reading and then that will be recorded on the phone.

Chris - How do the soundwaves tell what's underneath the surface of the skin?

Debra - Your breast tissue kind of acts as a filter and because the device will be pre-trained on, say, like a thousand women. And so we would've trained it to say, okay, this is what this, the readings will be like, if there is a lump present or if there isn't anything present. And so, depending on what the density of your tissue is underneath that point, that you're checking over the readings will be different.

Chris - Is it a bit like when you go for a baby scan and we use ultrasound, it's using sound waves and looking at the echoes that come back to work out the underlying profile of the tissue.

Debra - Exactly. That's it. Yeah. It's very similar to ultrasound. It just uses a different frequency.

Chris - How good is it at picking up the architecture of the tissue?

Debra - So right now we haven't actually tested it on human tissue at the moment, but we have done it on breast models that we've made within the labs. And then we've embedded lumps between three millimeters to eight millimeters within the models of the breast tissue. And it's been able to identify every lump and also find differences between areas that do have lumps and then areas that don't, and that's that 90% accuracy for detecting whether there is a lump present, but the next step would then be testing on women.

Chris - How deeply do you think it will be able to see into the tissue? Because obviously women come in different shapes and sizes. There are some with very small breasts, some women have very large breasts and that could be a challenge. Couldn't it get it to see deeply enough?

Debra - Yeah, definitely. But I think that's also why we want women to be applying pressure to their breasts as well. So it kind of flattens the area that the distance that the sound waves will need to cross, but also we are trying to do it. So no matter how big your breasts are, it can reach the front of your ribcage.

Chris - You mentioned earlier that you put in your menstrual cycle. I mean, that's important, isn't it? Because breasts and breast tissue go through cycles of growth and then shrinkage during the menstrual cycle, which can be confusing. It can make your breasts feel lumpy from time to time. So is there not a danger with this that it could make some people into the worried well?

Debra - So we ask for the details of your menstrual cycle. So we can tell you the best time for you to do it. So most GPS recommend that you do a self check, like a few days after you've had your period, because then all the chemicals and hormones are more relaxed within your breast tissue and that they tend to be less lumpy. So that's kind of why we want to take that information so we can predict the best time for you to prevent, you know, picking up any lumps that aren't really problematic. And that's also why we compare monthly readings just to make sure that if there are, you know, changes that you need to be aware of, well, we flag those. And if it is just a lump, that's, lumpy because your breasts are lumpy during the month, it is not likely that you'll pick that up in the following month.

Chris - So you would effectively get a profile, which it can compare one month with the next, and if you've got an area that might be a bit sinister, it's gonna say, well, that hasn't changed. This is the one to look at. And then I suppose you could take that to your GP and say, I'm a bit worried about this area. Could you have a look as well?

Debra - Yeah, that's exactly it. That's exactly what we would do. So yeah, you're comparing them and they were highlighting any changes and encouraging people to go into, get them checked clinically. If the changes do persist,

Chris - Given that you've got this working potentially for one very important part of the body, there are others that also we're encouraged to self-examine men are encouraged, especially young men to examine their testicles, to make sure they haven't got testicular cancer. It strikes me that you could do the same thing with that, couldn't you?

Debra - Absolutely. Yeah. That is one of the goals. I think once we've got the technology working really well for detecting lumps within your breast tissue, we definitely want to adapt it to early detection of other cancers and diseases as well. So yes, that is, that is the goal.


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