Women who undergo mammograms know how modern medicine remains relatively archaic in some aspects. This type of breast examination can be unpleasant and intrusive. Fortunately, there are solutions on the way: female patients themselves could soon be able to detect any lump using pressure-sensitive rubber gloves, thanks to a new family of transparent, flexible and highly-sensitive sensors.
There are already many pressure sensors, including those that stick to the skin, but none has been able to measure pressure precisely enough for medical applications when folded or wrinkled — a necessity to incorporate this type of sensor into functional flexible designs. According to Sungwon Lee, the new sensor’s designer, most flexible pressure sensors distort too easily to be useful in real life applications.
Organic nanofiber sensor gloves
Mr. Lee and his colleagues developed a nanofiber pressure sensor that can measure the pressure distribution on rounded surfaces, even when folded to only twice the thickness of a human hair. The sensor is only eight micrometers thick and can measure 144 independent pressure points simultaneously, which allows it to monitor the pressure variation along a blood vessel. This is close to ultrasonic sensitivity.
In addition to the pressure-sensitive nanofiber structure, the device contains organic transistors — electronic components made of carbon and oxygen-based materials — to capture and read data. Its nanofiber structure was created by depositing carbon nanotubes and graphene on an elastic polymer. The nanofibers — averaging 300 to 700 nanometers in diameter — were then interlaced with each other to make a porous, ultrathin and highly-flexible transparent sheet.
Sungwon Lee developed the nanofiber pressure sensor glove under the coordination of Professor Takao Someya at the University of Tokyo, Japan, whose team has been developing artificial electronic skins for several years for use in robotics and health care. Someya has been involved in several e-skin projects, including a bionic skin that monitors oxygen levels and even a bionic skin that endows humans with magnetoreception. This innovative research could have applications in many other fields.
Earlier detection to increase survival rates
In preventive examinations of breast cancer, this glove (or bionic skin) could easily find nodules too small to be detected through manual self-examination or even examinations using high tech equipment. Lumps under an inch in length are typically undetectable in clinical examinations performed by professional personnel. By enhancing detection rates, this bionic skin could help to drastically increase survival rates among breast cancer victims. Developing methods to enable early self-detection of breast cancer has been a priority on researchers’ agendas because it remains the strongest defense against the most common female cancer.