Untangling a New Breast Cancer Screening Technology

An Australian company takes on a controversial technique to screen for breast cancer: X-raying hair

3 min read

Fermiscan Holdings, a start-up firm in Sydney, Australia, says it plans to commercialize a ­controversial breast-cancer-screening ­technology that most scientists have given up on. The technology would replace traditional Xâ''ray mammography with a test requiring just a hair sample—and access to a multimillion-dollar particle accelerator called a synchrotron. Fermiscan is betting that women will greatly prefer offering a hair sample to suffering the discomfort of mammography. Having analyzed 800 hair samples collected from women as they go in for routine breast exams, Fermiscan says it will be ready to start offering screenings by the end of 2008. The trouble is, eight years after the technique was first reported, no independent laboratory has ever been able to make it work.

Fermiscan’s test is based on technology licensed from Veronica James, a physics professor at the Australian National University in Canberra, who reported in 1999 that she could detect an abnormality in the hair of women with breast cancer. In her research, James shot a concentrated beam of Xâ''rays at single strands of hair. When the beam hit the hair, the diffracted Xâ''rays formed a pattern on the detector related to the molecular structure of keratin, a protein found in hair. James claimed to find a diffuse additional ring in the diffraction pattern from hair samples of women with breast cancer.

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Are You Ready for Workplace Brain Scanning?

Extracting and using brain data will make workers happier and more productive, backers say

11 min read
A photo collage showing a man wearing a eeg headset while looking at a computer screen.
Nadia Radic

Get ready: Neurotechnology is coming to the workplace. Neural sensors are now reliable and affordable enough to support commercial pilot projects that extract productivity-enhancing data from workers’ brains. These projects aren’t confined to specialized workplaces; they’re also happening in offices, factories, farms, and airports. The companies and people behind these neurotech devices are certain that they will improve our lives. But there are serious questions about whether work should be organized around certain functions of the brain, rather than the person as a whole.

To be clear, the kind of neurotech that’s currently available is nowhere close to reading minds. Sensors detect electrical activity across different areas of the brain, and the patterns in that activity can be broadly correlated with different feelings or physiological responses, such as stress, focus, or a reaction to external stimuli. These data can be exploited to make workers more efficient—and, proponents of the technology say, to make them happier. Two of the most interesting innovators in this field are the Israel-based startup InnerEye, which aims to give workers superhuman abilities, and Emotiv, a Silicon Valley neurotech company that’s bringing a brain-tracking wearable to office workers, including those working remotely.

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