Scientists are developing ‘bionic breasts’ that could restore sensation to breast cancer survivors who have suffered mastectomies and reconstructive surgeries.
Every year, more than 100,000 women in the United States have one or both breasts surgically removed to treat breast cancer and to help prevent the disease from returning, or as a preventative treatment for people at high genetic risk of breast cancer.
After a mastectomy, many patients choose to have reconstructive surgery to rebuild the breasts with implants or tissue from elsewhere in the body. However, only recently has there been an option to potentially restore the nerves of the chest and nipples as part of this procedure. Thus, many patients experience loss of sensation in the breasts and one decreased sexual satisfaction this can have a negative impact on their mental health.
The new bionic breast, which would be implanted in the skin of the chest, is still under development. However, the team just received $4 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to start testing parts of the device in patients from next year.
“We are working hand in hand with our patients to make the most of science across all disciplines, as you can see, and solve a very fundamental but extremely important problem that is causing great human suffering.” Dr. Stacey Lindaugynecologist and professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Chicago who is leading the research, told Live Science.
Related: Breast implants saved a man’s life during a lung transplant. Here’s how.
Lindau came up with the idea for the new project after hearing patients describe their experiences recovering from reconstructive surgery following a mastectomy. Not only was their sex life hampered afterward, but also their daily social interactions — for example, they could no longer feel the warmth and pressure of a hug from a friend, she said.
“My patients, who know that I am also a researcher, asked me: can you please find a solution to this problem?” » said Lindau. “Breasts are an important sexual organ for many women and their partners, and the loss of sensation in some women’s breasts is as distressing as it would be for a man to lose sensation in his penis, for example,” she said. -she declared.
When designing the new bionic breast device – which researchers first described in a 2020 article in the journal Frontiers of neurorobotics — the team took inspiration from technology already developed to restore sensation in patients with prosthetic hands.
The idea is to insert artificial pressure sensors under the skin of the reconstructed breast. When stimulated by pressure, these sensors send signals to electrodes implanted under the arm which, in turn, stimulate the “intercostal” nerves that run between the ribs. These nerves then transmit the signals to the brain, where they are interpreted as sensations.
Over the next four and a half years, Lindau and his team plan to use NIH funds to conduct a proof-of-concept study in eight patients undergoing mastectomy and reconstructive surgery to confirm that they can provide electricity to the intercostal nerves via electrodes.
At the same time, bioengineers are developing artificial pressure sensors from soft, flexible polymer materials that would resemble breast tissue, Sihong Wang, assistant professor of molecular engineering and team member at the University of Chicago, told Live Science. They are also working on ways to ensure that the sensors will not trigger a harmful immune response once implanted in the body.
If these efforts are successful, the team plans to combine the flexible sensors and electrodes into a device that could be tested on patients, Lindau said.
Overall, this effort could have potential applications beyond breast cancer survivors.
“We have every reason to believe that the work we are doing here could be applicable to many other health conditions in which people suffer from loss of sensory functions,” Lindau said.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer medical advice.
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