With microwaves, prof tests mammography alternative

In the hopes of providing women with a safer alternative to mammography, currently the leading form of breast cancer screening in the United States, Thayer School of Engineering professor Paul Meaney has been researching and testing the use of microwave rays as a new form of cancer imaging. The project, begun in the 1990s and researched both at Thayer and at Meaney's company, Microwave Imaging Systems Technology, is the first to use a microwave imaging system in a clinic.

In Meaney's new method, microwave imaging sends low-power signals from 16 antennae across a woman's body to image different sections of her breast. The data is then sent to a computer that reconstructs a three-dimensional image of the breast, enabling researchers to detect tumors. Unlike mammograms, Meaney said, this procedure does not use x-rays which emit radiation and occasionally cause genetic mutations.

Meaney also sought to assuage patients' concerns about the heat produced in microwave imaging.

"The favorite question with microwaves is always, am I going to get heated up with this?" he said. "We transmit a signal that is about one one-thousandth the power of a typical cell phone. There's no chance that there's any heating going on."

Although microwave imaging does not have the potentially dangerous effects of mammography, the popularity of mammograms in the United States has made it difficult for Meaney to find clinics that will utilize the technology.

"There are a lot of barriers to entry," Meaney said. "Techniques like mammography are very well entrenched in the standard of care in the U.S. They're going to be very difficult to displace."

Still, Meaney maintains hope that professional medical practices will eventually implement the process.

"I like to really see some of the stuff actually get into the clinic," Meaney said. "My personal bias is I don't necessarily like to do research for research's sake. I really like to try to impact the clinic."

Funding is also a challenge for Meaney and his colleagues. While his project currently has a grant from the National Institute of Health, the possibility that the Institute may cut his funding has forced Meaney to research other opportunities for collaboration.

Publications in academic journals, as well as Meaney's attendance at international conferences, have helped the system gain worldwide recognition. In June, Meaney's company began to collaborate with the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute in Korea, and Meaney is currently working on developing an agreement with researchers in Italy. Although finding these connections has been difficult, Meaney stated that he sees international partnerships as "real opportunities" to develop interest in his work.

"The barriers to entry in the other countries are much lower and mammography is much less entrenched as the clinical gold standard," Meaney said. "If they get good enough data, they try to use it to break into the U.S. market."

Meaney has also researched more general uses for microwave imaging technology, including its ability to screen for osteoporosis and risk of bone fracture. In addition, he has looked for funding to investigate the system's usefulness in airport security procedures, because the signals can detect harmful liquids in baggage. Although funds were denied for this venture, Meaney continues to pursue this possibility.

"In the business place, there are some awfully big players, and we've got to convince them," Meaney said. "We've only been around for a couple of years, but in that short time, we've seen some very, very promising results."