Illustration courtesy the researchers

Better breast cancer screening

November 14, 2018
This article appeared in Berkeley Engineer magazine, Fall 2018

Over the course of her lifetime, a woman in the United States has a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer. Key to the diagnosis is a biopsy, where cells are visually examined under a microscope by a pathologist. But microscopy inspection isn’t totally quantitative, and cancer cells may be missed or normal cells mistaken for cancer cells. Now, technology developed by mechanical engineering professor Lydia Sohn and her research group could dramatically improve the accuracy of early breast cancer detection. Their technology, called mechano-node-pore sensing, or mechano-NPS, uses microfluidics — an inexpensive process in which small volumes of liquids flow under pressure through extremely small tubes, or micropores — to measure the relative softness or stiffness of isolated breast cells. Previously, the researchers had discovered that cancerous breast cells travel through the micropores more quickly than non-malignant cells because they are more pliable, or elastic. Using mechano-NPS, the researchers are now able to distinguish between two key subpopulations of breast cells that are central to breast cancer development. The researchers believe their technology should be applicable to samples from different biopsy procedures, and hope it can be expanded to test for other types of cancers.