Electronic Skin Made From Nanoparticles Offers Early Breast Cancer Detection

Photo: iStockphoto

Researchers at the Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience at the University of Nebraska have developed a prototype electronic skin made from nanoparticles that they claim can offer an early detection method for breast cancer.

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, developed a thin-film tactile device, also known as “electronic skin”, in which the contact pressure that corresponds to the shape of the object can be mapped by measuring the local deformation of the tactile-device film.

The research team built the tactile device layer-by-layer using spin coating of polymers in combination with the deposition of 10-nanometer (nm) gold nanoparticles, which are often used in cancer detection and treatment techniques—along with 3-nm cadmium sulfide nanoparticles. The overall multilayer structure consisted of three layers of gold nanoparticles and two layers of cadmium sulfide nanoparticles separated by nine layers of the polymers. All of this was then deposited onto a indium-tin oxide (ITO) glass substrate. The ITO served as the bottom electrode while aluminum foil was used as the top electrode.

In their tests, the researchers embedded objects that simulated lumps into a piece of silicone and pressed the device against it with the same pressure a clinician would use during a breast exam.

The results were significantly better than what a doctor might be able to detect. With the device, the researchers were able to detect an artificial lump as small as 5 millimeters wide that was embedded 20 mm into the silicone.

This compares favorably to clinical breast exams performed by medical professionals, in which they typically don’t find lumps as large as 21 mm wide. It's estimated that if doctors were able to detect irregularities when they’re half the size of those missed 21-mm lumps, a patient’s chances of survival would improve by more than 94 percent.

This test also offers some benefits over other detection techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which can be very expensive, and mammography, which is often inadequate for young women or women with dense breast tissue.

The researchers also note that it could be used to screen patients for early signs of melanoma and other cancers.



IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

Dexter Johnson
Madrid, Spain
Rachel Courtland
Associate Editor, IEEE Spectrum
New York, NY