The earlier breast cancer is detected, the more treatable it is. But for remote communities here in Manitoba, and some countries around the world, that early detection is out of reach.
A University of Manitoba graduate student in the department of physics is working on an easy-to-use portable device to help people in remote communities detect breast cancer before it becomes a death sentence.
Gabrielle Fontaine, an Anishinaabe student from Sagkeeng First Nation, about 100 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, is working on the device that uses microwaves to detect the disease.
Her research has shown some lower and middle-income countries that have lower rates of breast cancer have higher mortality rates, and that’s because there’s a lack of early detection.
“If you don’t have access to that early detection like a lot of women do … then it’s more difficult to treat this cancer once it is detected,” Fontaine said.
“I immediately thought it would be beneficial to also use this in northern communities and reservations here in Canada that don’t have the same access to medical facilities like we do here in the city.”
Fontaine’s cylindrical device contains multiple antennas, which each have their own power supply. Some of the antennas emit microwaves toward the breast and are detected by the remaining antennas. This information is used to either reconstruct images or for machine learning purposes.
The microwaves are low power compared to X-rays, Fontaine says, which means it’s safer to use multiple times.
She’s envisioning the device as easy to use and accessible.
“I’m designing it so that they can operate it on themselves, so they’ll be able to insert their breast into the device, operate the machine on themselves and through artificial intelligence, it will immediately tell the patient whether or not they have a breast abnormality,” Fontaine said.
“There’s no need for a doctor or a nurse to to help them operate that if they can do it all themselves.”
The device hasn’t yet been tested on humans.
Fontaine says she’ll use the device on a tissue in the lab that mimics breast tissue, and once it’s shown to perform well on those scans, it will be used in clinical trials.
She hopes that the device will one day help remote fly-in communities where hospitals are difficult to access.
“This device could be placed in their community centre so that anyone on the reservation can have access to it” Fontaine said.
“That way, we can reduce and prevent unnecessary death.”