MARIA: Pain-free Breast Cancer Detection Technology Using Radio Waves

In the United States, breast cancer is the second most common cancer amongst woman (skin cancer being the first), accounting for approximately 30% of cancer cases.

About 37 million mammograms are done annually in the United States. One in ten women who have a mammogram will need further testing, and according to the American Cancer Society between two and four screenings out of 1,000 result in a cancer diagnosis.

British researchers have had success using a new radio wave technology in detecting breast cancer in women. It is a painless method with high detection rates that could be in widespread use within five years.

Methods of Detecting Breast Cancer

Ribbons for Breast Cancer AwarenessThe most popular technique to determine cancerous cells in the breast is with a mammogram. Mammography involves ionizing radiation and x-rays to locate tumors or suspicious masses in the breast tissue.

Although it has been used as a screening technique for decades, there are a few drawbacks. It is a painful process for women as the breast is squeezed between x-ray plates. There is also a suspected risk of an increase in cancer as the body is subjected to radiation. And because the typical breast tissue of women younger than 50 years old is fairly dense—although women older than this can also have dense breast tissue—it can be more difficult for the x-rays to detect tumors. Therefore, it is not routinely used as a breast cancer screening technique for younger women.

Other breast cancer screening techniques include:

  • thermography: infrared cameras record heat from the body and highlight certain cells; can be used in early detection
  • ultrasound: evaluates masses both seen and unseen in the breast tissue; often used in conjunction with mammograms
  • MRI: magnetic resonance imaging scans the breast both before and after being injected with a contrast agent; if tumors or masses are present post-contrast images will highlight these areas; a highly sensitive technique but quite expensive.

Radio Wave Detection of Breast Cancer

MARIA (Multistatic Array Processing for Radiowave Image Acquisition) is a revolutionary technique developed by British researchers at Bristol University. Based on the same technology used to locate nonmetallic explosives in land mine detection in the soil, MARIA could help with early breast cancer detection rates in women of all ages without having any potential side effects.

The MARIA technique involves the woman’s breast being placed in a ceramic cup-shaped scanner where 60 antennae emit radio waves. Within 8 seconds, the waves transmit results into 3D images, where doctors can determine normal and tumorous breast tissue by examining the deposits of water and blood present in the breast (tumors contain high amounts of blood and water).

Benefits & Potential of MARIA

Happy DoctorThis technology has several benefits. It is a pain-free process for women, and safe for both the patient and the healthcare practitioner. This radio wave technology can easily and effectively be used for early detection in women of all ages, regardless of the density of the breast tissue. And compared to other screening technologies, MARIA provides fast and accurate results—images are produced within only 8 seconds.

The cost of MARIA machines is significantly less, as well. While x-ray machines can cost approximately $800,000, MARIA radio wave machines may cost approximately $20,000.

Researchers have had great success with trial studies—out of 200 women, 80% of cancer cases were detected, a statistic comparable to other screening technologies—and hope to have this technology in wide-spread use within a five-year period.