Public Release: 

New wireless device can aid recovery of breast cancer patients

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

Patient studies of a new sensing device have proved it can provide early warning of the potential failure of breast reconstruction surgery, making it easier to take effective remedial action.

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and led by Imperial College London, an international team has developed the wireless 'bio-patch' as part of the Smart Sensing for Surgery project.

Incorporating electronics measuring just 1.8 x 1.1cm, the bio-patch was attached to a group of patients for 48 hours following breast reconstruction surgery. It successfully performed continuous monitoring of the level of oxygen saturation in transferred tissue - a key indicator of whether there is a risk of reconstruction failure.

Professor Guang-Zhong Yang, Director of the Hamlyn Centre at Imperial College London, has led the Smart Sensing for Surgery project. He says: "Poor blood supply or failure of breast reconstruction surgery can have a major impact on a breast cancer patient's recovery, prognosis and mental wellbeing. Clinical signs of failure often occur late and patients may be returned to the operating room on clinical suspicion. Our new bio-patch tackles this problem by providing objective data as an early warning system for medical staff, enabling earlier and simpler interventions, as well as giving patients increased peace of mind."

Breast reconstruction surgery following a mastectomy routinely includes transfer of the patient's own tissue to help rebuild the breast. This procedure achieves high success rates but early detection of possible problems could help further reduce post-surgical complications and cut surgery failure rates.

Science Minister Sam Gyimah said: "This technology has the potential to be truly life-saving. It is scientific inventions like this, pioneered by our world-leading experts and institutions, that will help us meet the grand challenges of tomorrow.

"We want to keep the UK at the front of the pack when it comes to innovative science. That's why we have committed to the biggest ever increase in research and development spending by 2027."

Professor Lynn Gladden, EPSRC's Executive Chair, says: "This Smart Sensing for Surgery project is an excellent example of how science and engineering can have direct impacts on people's lives. Spotting post-surgery problems early can help clinicians treat patients quickly and improve outcomes. It is particularly heartening to hear about the application of this technology during Breast Cancer Awareness month."

Harnessing a technique known as near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), the new device safely captures and transmits data using sensors hermetically sealed inside fully biocompatible materials. The data is encrypted to ensure security and privacy.

Early trials have opened up the prospect of the bio-patch becoming available for widespread clinical use within two to three years. The project team is currently exploring the scope to secure commercial or National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) support for the next stage of development and commercialisation.

The device is now being adapted to help monitor conditions such as dementia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Smart Sensing for Surgery has achieved other promising advances, including development of sensors that can be implanted just under the skin to provide continuous measurement of pulse rate, temperature and pH balance, for example, and development of 'smart' catheters or drains enabling problems (e.g. relating to infection) to be spotted early on.

Professor Yang says: "The Smart Sensing for Surgery project demonstrates how engineers and clinicians can come together to develop 'smart' solutions that have huge potential not just to enhance patient health and wellbeing but also to help reduce the burden on healthcare resources."

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For media enquiries contact:

Professor Guang-Zhong Yang, Imperial College London, Tel: 020 7594 1499, e-mail: g.z.yang@imperial.ac.uk; or the EPSRC Press Office, tel: 01793 444404, e-mail: pressoffice@epsrc.ukri.org

Notes for Editors:

The EPSRC-funded project Smart Sensing for Surgery ran from June 2014 to October 2018 and received just over £3 million in EPSRC support. The following organisations participated in the initiative:

  • Imperial College London
  • Ministry of Defence
  • Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne
  • Leptosense Ltd
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Dublin City University
  • National Technical University of Athens
  • Roke Manor Research Ltd
  • Covidien
  • Boston Scientific
  • Intel Corporation
  • Cybula Limited

Over 55,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. 43% of women who have surgery for breast cancer undergo a mastectomy. (Source: Breast Cancer Care)

Near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) is a non-invasive imaging technique that measures how much radiation in the near-infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum is absorbed by the biological or chemical sample being examined.

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government. EPSRC is the main funding body for engineering and physical sciences research in the UK. By investing in research and postgraduate training, we are building the knowledge and skills base needed to address the scientific and technological challenges facing the nation. Our portfolio covers a vast range of fields from healthcare technologies to structural engineering, manufacturing to mathematics, advanced materials to chemistry. The research we fund has impact across all sectors. It provides a platform for future UK prosperity by contributing to a healthy, connected, resilient, productive nation.

Imperial College London is a science-based university with an international reputation for excellence in teaching and research. Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial is committed to developing the next generation of researchers, scientists and academics through collaboration across disciplines. Located in the heart of London, Imperial is a multidisciplinary space for education, research, translation and commercialisation, harnessing science and innovation to tackle global challenges.

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