A Hypochondriac's Dream

Coming soon—a home cancer-screening device

A handheld breast-cancer-detecting device called iFind—the first of its kind—could be on drugstore shelves, next to the home pregnancy tests and massage wands, in about two years. In University of Pennsylvania clinical studies, iFind's near-infrared light successfully detected unusual concentrations of blood vessels that could be feeding a tumor. Using it is similar to feeling for lumps with your hand, but unlike your fingers, the cell-phone-size device can distinguish between usually harmless, fluid-filled cysts and actual masses that should be checked out by a doctor.

The chief developer, 92-year-old Penn professor emeritus Dr. Britton Chance, says it's pretty cheap to make and should sell for about $100, which isn't a lot if you've discovered you belong to the minority of women genetically predisposed. And African American women, though less likely to carry the so-called breast cancer gene, seem to be more susceptible to the particularly vicious strains that strike women under 40—so young they are unlikely to get regular mammograms.

In the wake of pink-ribbon activism, this is but one of several innovations produced with the help of hundreds of millions of government dollars earmarked for early detection. We may be no closer to pinpointing likely links between industrial pollutants and cancer, but we do have Neomatrix's Halo Breast PAP Test system (which uses twin suction cups to suck out nipple fluid that can then be tested for abnormal cells, sometimes a precursor to cancer). We also have Naviscan's PEM Flex Solo PET scanner, which, when used in combination with a molecular imaging technique, may soon be able to detect small tumors in young, dense breasts more effectively than a mammogram. Advances in nanotechnology indicate that microscopic tubes will one day be used to detect cancer cells in a drop of blood within minutes.

It's convenience that sets the iFind apart from the rest—being able to test yourself whenever you want (unlike radiation, near-infrared light is harmless) or whenever you're feeling vulnerable (I'd probably use it every day) could be useful if you're unlucky enough to carry BRCA genes 1 or 2 (and the attendant 39 to 65 percent risk of contracting cancer). There is the small danger of a false negative (University of Pennsylvania studies indicate a success rate of over 90 percent—even higher, says Chance, than a mammography), but women with elevated risk are supposed to get mammograms every year anyway. Boosters take it a step further, suggesting that an iFind could benefit uninsured women who don't tend to get checked until it's too late. Black women die from breast cancer at a rate 25 percent higher than the general population, and separate studies have shown that poor white women die at similarly high rates. Seems reasonable, but an underemployed mother spending her grocery money on a device designed to give her bad news quickly seems an unlikely scenario.

More promising is the prospect that free clinics will adopt the new technology, or even the old technology that served as its prototype. Before the iFind there was a larger infrared screening machine—a computer attached to a machine that has to be operated by a nurse practitioner. The results, published this past summer in in Academic Radiology after six years of trials by the same University of Pennsylvania team, show that it detected growths almost 95 percent of the time, but, like the iFind, it is still waiting for FDA approval.

 
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