Microwave breast screening getting closer

15 March 2017

Yifan Chen

Professor Yifan Chen is leading a study that could transform breast screening programmes.

A new non-invasive method of breast screening is currently being trialled in China, thanks to the work of Professor Yifan Chen from the School of Engineering at the University of Waikato and ET Medical, a leading medical instrument company headquartered in Shenzhen, China.

Professor Chen led the team that developed the new imaging system which conveys low power of microwaves for women’s breast screening and they began a large-scale clinical trial in December last year, the first of its kind in the Asia-Pacific region.

“BreastScreen Aotearoa, New Zealand’s free national breast screening programme, currently only offers mammograms to eligible women aged between 45 and 69,” says Professor Chen. “This new system aims to scan women in all age groups and all high-risk groups at affordable costs with imaging performance comparable to that of X-ray mammogram, and so it has the potential to transform the existing breast screening programmes worldwide.”

Professor Chen says compared to the existing X-ray mammogram, ultrasonography and MRI, microwave breast imaging could be a more attractive screening tool because both ionizing radiation and breast compression are avoided, leading to safer and more comfortable exams.

“It also has the potential to be both sensitive and specific even for dense breasts, to detect small tumours, and to be much cheaper than other methods such as MRI,” Professor Chen says.

The imaging device incorporates sophisticated radar sensors with operating frequency and transmission power comparable to those of a mobile phone. A scan can be completed within four minutes.

In the first stage of the trial, the system has been deployed to examine 11 healthy women with six of them having mammary hyperplasia. These preliminary tests confirm the system’s effectiveness and suggest that responses from mammary hyperplasia can be identified successfully. It is expected that hundreds of patients will be tested in the next few months, Professor Chen says.

He hopes commercialisation of microwave breast screen technology will occur within the next one-to-two years. “This clinical trial will also be the first large-scale trial focussing on Asian women, who usually have denser breasts than European women which makes it harder to detect tumours using X-ray or ultrasound.”

Professor Chen is also keen to apply the technology in New Zealand’s national breast screening programme, “Recent Ministry of Health reports show that Māori women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, less likely to be diagnosed early, more likely to die from breast cancer than non-Māori, and tend to get breast cancer at a younger age,” he says.  “Pasifika women also have higher rates of breast cancer than Pākehā or European women. These situations may be changed with the deployment of the microwave breast screening technology given its superior performance.”

Professor Chen will present the findings of the clinical trial in the Final Working Group and Management Committee Meeting of the EU Framework Programme Horizon 2020 COST Action TD1301 "MiMed" in Malta in June. He is a working group leader and management committee member of this Cost Action, which comprises more than 200 academic and industry members from 27 countries focusing on accelerating the technological, clinical and commercialisation progress in the area of medical microwave imaging.