A NASA-Stanford University team is in the preliminary stages of developing a smart probe that can be used for breast cancer detection and analysis.
The probe is designed to 'see' a lump; determine by its features if it is cancerous; and then quickly predict how the disease may progress. Researchers say surgeons may be able to insert the computerized tool's needle-like tip into breast lumps to make instant diagnoses and long-term cancer predictions.
"This device will permit us to make real-time, detailed interpretations of breast tissue at the tip of the needle," said Robert Mah of NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA. Mah works in the Ames Neuroengineering Laboratory. "The instrument may allow health care providers to make expert, accurate diagnoses as well as to suggest proper, individualized treatment, even in remote areas."
"To enable the instrument to recognize cancer and predict its progress, we use special neural net software that is trained and learns from experience," he said. Scientists can teach the breast cancer diagnosis device to predict how aggressive the disease may be.
"We hope to use this device not only to detect cancer, but to understand the nature of an individual cancer," said Dr. Stefanie Jeffrey, Assistant Professor of Surgery and Chief of Breast Surgery, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA. "This information may help us determine the distinctive features of a malignancy and how the disease may progress; more knowledge about the cancer may guide us to better individualizing treatment."
Jeffrey and Mah are working together to develop the new device. The researchers say that, once the smart probe has been adequately tested in the laboratory, Dr. Jeffrey will begin testing the device on human beings, perhaps by early 1999.
"Ultrasound will help guide the doctor to properly insert the smart probe into a breast lump," said Dr. Robyn Birdwell, Assistant Professor of Radiology, Breast Imaging Section at Stanford.
"The computer software uses pattern recognition to look for tell-tale characteristics of the lump," Mah said.
"The same technology used in the portable, smart probe could be used in other instruments to help in diagnosing and treating cancers found in other parts of the body, including the prostate and colon," neuroengineering team computer engineer Alex Galvagni said.
The breast cancer tool is a spinoff from a computerized robotic brain surgery assistant that was previously developed by Mah and neurosurgeon Dr. Russell Andrews.
The larger brain surgery device is a simple robot that can 'learn' the physical characteristics of the brain and may soon give surgeons finer control of surgical instruments during delicate brain operations.
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