By: Colleen Biondi
Since 2002, Dr. Elise Fear has been a professor of electrical and software engineering and a researcher at the University of Calgary. Fear has been fascinated by the unique interplay between engineering and medicine since her student days.
“I am interested in using technology to help people,” she says. “And I am particularly curious about the potential for improving women’s health care.”
In pursuit of that goal, Fear and her research team have dedicated the last two decades to exploring a way to advance breast cancer monitoring and treatment evaluation. The result is a device called MITS (Microwave Imaging Transmission System), which is currently being tested on women in Alberta.
MITS looks like a mini-mammogram machine and examines one breast at a time. But instead of using X-rays or radiation, it uses microwaves, which are low-risk, have less power than a cellphone and do not heat up tissue. Hundreds of small sensors in the MITS’ plates act as “antennas” to send microwaves into the breast, retrieve signals with information about its components and send information to the software for analysis.
Each test takes less than a minute and involves only light breast compression with the plates.
“With the testing we have done so far, women are reporting it is a comfortable process,” says Fear. Results are immediate, and, even better, MITS is portable. “Put it on a cart, wheel it to the doctor’s office, plug it in and you are good to go,” says Fear. “It is fast and effective.”
Since microwaves can detect water content in the breast, which is associated with more dense tissue and, therefore, a higher risk of breast cancer, MITS could be used as a speedy screening tool in doctors’ offices. The technology could flag women with denser breasts — without even needing a mammogram — and open up a preliminary conversation about screening needs going forward.
Starting in December 2021, Fear tested MITS with 25 healthy volunteers to assess the consistency of the scans and explore the application’s breast density results. The volunteers participated in three sessions of three scans, typically over three weeks. The data was consistent and also compared favourably to the results of participants who had received breast density tests via mammograms or ultrasounds.
Microwaves also have the potential to detect changes in tumour size. In spring 2023, Fear plans to begin monitoring 25 breast cancer patients at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre over their six-month chemotherapy protocol to see if tumours are shrinking as a result of treatment. MITS’ results will be compared to traditional ultrasound results, and, if they are the same, a larger study and clinical trial will follow. Ultimately, Fear hopes MITS will become another viable test in an oncologist’s cancer-treatment tool box.
There have been several iterations of MITS before this current one. The original MITS, designed by Fear and her team in 2008, had limited capacity to explore changes in breast properties. And a model from 2013 could only examine a portion of the breast. But, after receiving feedback from volunteers and a robust group of “extremely supportive” clinical collaborators in breast health and oncology from the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, Fear’s team embarked on a major process of tweaking and re-tweaking to improve the user experience. This “scaffolding” approach — designing the hardware and software in the lab, making improvements, testing the product with volunteers and patients, making more changes, then embarking on larger frameworks for testing — is crucial to the design process, she says. “We are having lots of really great conversations about the needs of the clinicians, what the technology might do and how the two could match up.”
Committed funders are also crucial to the process. MITS’ financial supporters include the Alberta Cancer Foundation, Alberta Innovates and the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. Fear is grateful for the $1.5 million that has supported the project to date.
“It is a long pathway,” she admits, estimating it could take two years to commercialize the breast density application and more than five years to get MITS into clinicians’ hands to track cancer treatment results. She is also grateful for her research group and their passion and dedication to “bringing an idea to life” for real-world applications.
“Every time we scan and see an image, we are learning something,” Fear says. “This has captured the imagination of our team, and it is very motivating.”
There is also a personal component to her determination. Fear’s husband, Rob, has been diagnosed with a unique form of testicular cancer multiple times since 2014. He is now in remission and is being monitored through a simple blood test that will alert the team if the cancer returns. His experience inspires her to make the breast examination process simpler and speedier.
“I know how important it is for patients to have feedback,” says Fear.