An ultrasound bra for easier, cheaper, and more comfortable breast cancer screening

A team led by MIT professor Canan Dagdeviren published new research on a product that will be the basis of a new medtech startup. 

The product? A bra.

Of course, it’s not just any bra. The garment is hooked up with ultrasound sensors that allow the wearer to more comfortably be screened for breast cancer.

If you’re thinking that doesn’t sound like a regular mammogram, you’d be right.

Mammography has been the standard of care for breast cancer screening since the 1960s. If developed, this new wearable technology could provide a long-overdue update to a decades-old screening procedure that many patients find uncomfortable. And thus, improve screening rates.

Let’s take a look at how this technology works and why it’s poised to change how we understand screening for this extremely common and dangerous disease.

Illustration by Mary Delaney
Illustration by Mary Delaney

How breast cancer screening currently works

In the U.S., 42,000 women die from breast cancer annually. Globally, that number exceeds 600,000

The current U.S. Preventive Services Task Force-recommended screening protocol is to begin biennial mammograms at age 40. But this one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t account for various risk levels—and differing bodies.

The standard imaging done during this screening is the 2D mammogram, where one scan is taken from the top and one from the side.

Other current screening techniques include 3D mammography, which involves taking multiple scans from multiple angles. This, of course, means more radiation—plus a higher expense—and it’s less widely available. For women with a higher risk profile, whole-breast ultrasound imaging (WBUS) or even MRI imaging may be ordered.

And then there’s the question of breast density. Producing satisfactory images of denser breasts often means patients need to undergo WBUS or MRI imaging as well.

Even if a patient’s risk levels and breast density make them a candidate for regular, biennial 2D mammography, the screening procedure can still be physically and emotionally uncomfortable. And while regular self-exams are an important preventive measure, getting patients to come to screenings they may dread is an important hurdle innovators in this space are trying to lower. 

How does the ultrasound bra work?

As you can imagine from all of those details about the current state of mammogram screening (or from your own experience), there’s a lot of room for improvement.

That’s where the proposed ultrasound bra device comes in.

The components of the device include a flexible ultrasound patch, a bra with specially-placed holes around the breast, and magnets to hold it together. The patch can be rotated and touches the skin through the holes.

In their new paper, the research team revealed that the device successfully identified breast cysts in a 71-year-old patient with a history of these masses. And the best news: The image resolution—taken of tissue up to eight centimeters deep in the breast—resembled a traditional ultrasound scan.

Goodbye to the age of the mammogram? Not quite.

If you’re due for your mammogram soon, we wouldn’t advise skipping that appointment.

The ultrasound bra is nowhere near market-ready yet. It has still only been tested on one patient. And it is not yet sophisticated enough to distinguish between benign and malignant lumps.

Once the device successfully passes clinical trials, Dagdeviren hopes to turn it into an easier, cheaper, and significantly more comfortable breast cancer screening experience. This could especially be a game-changer for higher-risk patients—by significantly lowering screening hurdles. 

“I still have the sketch of an electronic bra which can allow imaging at home rather than going to the hospital,” Dagdeviren said. “Many women have barriers to this kind of technology because of economical reasons, emotional reasons, or not having available resources.”

And because the device is portable, it can be used as a stopgap screen between formal office imaging visits, making it even easier to catch suspicious changes early. For now, mammograms would remain necessary, but higher-risk patients who struggle to make regular screens could be empowered with this additional, accessible tool.

If you ask us, more preventive health tools in patients’ pockets is always a good idea. 

And while it’s not a panacea for the many inefficiencies and discomforts of mammograms, it’s a step in the right direction. It’s a positive sign the medtech world is striving toward improving this ever-important aspect of women’s preventive care. We’re eager to see where the technology grows from here.

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