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Device aims to eliminate multiple breast-cancer surgeries

Grad students at Johns Hopkins say their prototype device enables pathologists to inspect excised breast tissue so fast that more can be removed -- if necessary -- during the same operation.

The device applies an adhesive film to breast tissue to prevent damage when it is sliced for microscopic inspection.
Will Kirk

A prototype device created by John Hopkins University grad students can enable a pathologist to inspect excised breast tissue mid-surgery to determine whether a cancerous tumor has been fully removed.

The prototype's ability to dramatically reduce the time to inspect breast tissue -- down to as quickly as 20 minutes -- could ultimately decrease, if not flat out eliminate, the need for a second operation on the same tumor, John Hopkins announced this week.

One in five women who have surgery to remove cancerous breast tissue have to go back for follow-up surgery because not all the diseased tissue is removed. That amounts to about 60,000 patients annually in the U.S.

The four grad students became aware of the problem in 2012 during the school's year-long biomedical engineering master's program, when they were tasked with designing new medical tools to address urgent health care issues. Breast cancer surgeons told the students that they are "desperate" for a tool that enables them to remove an entire tumor the first time around, student and co-inventor Hector Neira said in a school news release.

Currently, when tumors are removed from most parts of the body, a pathologist can flash-freeze the tissue, slice off very thin samples, and study it under a microscope. If cancer cells are found near the outer edge of the sample, they know to remove more tissue. In the case of breast tissue, however, the high fat content does not freeze well, so the samples smear and form gaps, making that quick review impossible.

So the grad students thought up a device that adds an adhesive film to the breast tissue before it is sliced that holds the fatty but delicate tissue together, resulting in a sample that can withstand the rigors of fine slicing for microscopic inspection within just 20 minutes.

Better yet, the set-up is low cost even in prototype form. The students chose a reusable applicator and a proprietary disposable film.

"We're not doing it for the money," said co-inventor Anjana Sinha. "We want to improve health care practices and raise the standard of care for these breast cancer patients. Why can't they get the same type of quick results that people with other types of cancer receive?"

Though the device has thus far only tested animal tissue and human breast samples from a tissue bank, it has won more than $40,000 in college prize money and received the People's Choice Award at the university's Design Day event. In fact, even though all the students received their master's degrees in May, two are getting funding from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation to stay at the school over the next year to further refine the device.