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UMaine receives patent to aid in early detection of breast cancer

The University of Maine has received a patent that could help in the early detection of breast cancer. The inventors of the technology are Andre Khalil, an associate professor of chemical and biomedical engineering, and Kendra Ann Batchelder, a former UMaine graduate student. Much of the funding for the project came from the Maine Cancer Foundation.

The invention is a method of screening that analyzes different regions of breast tissues on a mammography image in order to determine if there are characteristics that could point to the development of breast cancer. Normally, mammograms, which are currently the leading screening technique to detect early stages of breast cancer, screen for information based on other mammography results. The new technology takes mammogram screening another step further by introducing an algorithm that can use biophysical data to analyze and identify physical markers that may be linked to malignant tumor onset and growth.

“The computational technique we have developed provides a clearer picture of the tumor microenvironment, which we believe is key to better understanding the way breast cancer develops and progresses,” Khalil said.

Khalil hopes that in the long-term, this technology will allow medical providers access to tools that will provide a much more comprehensive understanding of each patient’s individual tissue health, allowing for a much more efficient diagnosis outcome.

“Breast cancer is the second-most-common cancer among American women, and this technology has the potential to revolutionize the screening and treatment process,” Jake Ward, the UMaine vice president for innovation and economic development, said. “It is emblematic of the work UMaine researchers are carrying out across disciplines that can advance understanding and solve real-world problems.”

Khalil is involved in an ongoing project that aims to answer whether tumors cause regions of disrupted growth in tissue or if the disrupted regions are just the right environment for tumors to grow. He has shared his research with international researchers and physicians and is working to find a satisfactory answer in order to bring even more valuable information to physicians and health care providers.

“Right now, radiology is based on reactive medicine,” Khalil noted. “[Meaning], let’s do a screening, let’s wait for something to pop up and then once we see a tumor, calcification clusters or masses, then we react to it. I envision in the next few years where we are going to move from reactive medicine to predictive medicine.”

Early detection of breast cancer is a crucial step in ensuring the patient’s quality and length of life. Data from the Maine Division of Public Health Systems indicates that patients who are able to detect breast cancer at early stages, when tissue abnormalities are detected, have a 98% chance of living for at least five more years. When compared to those who are diagnosed when the cancer is at a later stage, after it has had an opportunity to spread to the rest of the body, those with early detection and diagnosis have a 72% chance of living more than five years after the diagnoses than those with late detection and diagnosis. Technology like what has been under development at UMaine has the potential to increase patients’ life spans by offering preemptive detection.

“If successful, we could move away from the current reactive treatment status quo and toward a clinical strategy based on predictive medicine that empowers both patients and clinicians,” Khalil stated.

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