Ultrasound sensors for improved breast cancer screening

The first prototype ultrasound sensors for a new improved breast screening technique have been developed as part of an Innovate UK funded collaboration between the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), University Hospitals Bristol (UHB), North Bristol NHS Trust (NBT), Precision Acoustics Ltd and Designworks. The team is now looking for commercial partners to translate the novel development into a clinical device.
NHS breast cancer screening in England is currently conducted using X-ray mammography, and further investigations may involve a clinical examination, more X-ray mammograms and conventional ultrasound.
During mammography, each breast is compressed between the two plates of an X-ray machine, which some women find very uncomfortable, and two X-rays are taken at different angles. However, the inability of 2D X-ray mammography to separate overlying tissue can lead to false positives and false negatives, and the hazards associated with ionizing radiation limit the frequency with which X-rays can be performed. Conventional ultrasound is highly operator-dependent and suffers from imaging problems, making cancerous tissue difficult to distinguish from healthy tissue.
NPL, UHB, NBT, Precision Acoustics and Designworks are developing a prototype clinical system for a new breast screening technique – using ultrasound computed tomography (UCT) – that may overcome the problems of diagnosing breast disease using conventional X-ray mammography and ultrasound scans. The new ultrasound method will be safer and lower cost than currently-used screening techniques, and the results should be easier for clinicians to interpret.
NPL has developed and patented a novel detection method employing pyroelectric sensors, which convert ultrasonic energy into heat, generating electrical signals which are eventually used to form the ultrasound image. These large-area thermal sensors should generate far fewer image artefacts than conventional piezoelectric detectors, which are sensitive to the phase of the arriving ultrasound waves.
In the new procedure, the patient