Japan, U.S. scientists pursue nano-thin pressure sensors for breast cancer exams


Superthin bendable sensors developed by Japanese and U.S. scientists could someday be used in special gloves to detect breast lumps and make a digital record of the exam, the scientists said in a report.

The nanofiber sensors are as thin as 3.4 micrometers — less than half the thickness of kitchen wrap — according to research published in the online version of the British science magazine Nature Nanotechnology.

“Health care practitioners may one day be able to physically screen for breast cancer using pressure-sensitive rubber gloves to detect tumors,” the researchers said in a statement before the publication.

A square sheet 4.8 by 4.8 cm in size has 144 locations that can measure pressure, according to the research teams led by University of Tokyo professor Takao Someya and Harvard University’s Zhigang Suo.

The sheet is so flexible it can detect pressure changes accurately even when twisted like cloth — a development claimed as a global first.

“Sensitive human fingers of a veteran doctor may be able to find a small tumor, but such perceived sensation cannot be measured,” Someya said Monday.

Digitization of the sensations means that they could be shared with other doctors who could theoretically experience the same sensations as the physician who performed the examination, he said.

Many researchers are developing flexible pressure sensors, but they are vulnerable when bent and twisted, which makes it difficult to detect pressure changes accurately, the University of Tokyo and Harvard researchers said.

The nanofiber pressure sensor they have developed can be bent over a radius of as small as 80 micrometers — “equivalent to just twice the width of a human hair.”

When tested on an artificial blood vessel, the sheet successfully detected “small pressure changes and speed of pressure propagation,” Sungwon Lee, a leading researcher in Someya’s team, said in the statement.

Someya stressed that the development will one day enable the equivalent of medical palpation — examining a patient by physical touch — by doctors in different locations from the patient.

“The new sensor would make it possible to measure the human sensation so that findings by palpation could even be shared remotely,” he said. “In the future, we would be able to record and make tangible certain sensations that can only be perceived by an experienced doctor.”