University of Utah develops new tool to diagnose cancer using electrical currents

Natasha Andreasen, left, and Benjamin Sanchez-Terrones demonstrate how you would use a new diagnostic tool they are developing to detect breast cancer in a patient.

Natasha Andreasen, left, and Benjamin Sanchez-Terrones demonstrate how you would use a new diagnostic tool they are developing to detect breast cancer in a patient. (Dan Hixson, University of Utah)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Researchers say a new tool developed by an assistant professor at the University of Utah can be used in breast cancer screenings at a younger age while reducing risk of radiation exposure using electrical currents.

Mammograms are an effective way of diagnosing breast cancer, but the procedure involves small doses of radiation. Due to the exposure of radiation, women don't typically begin the procedure until the age of 40.

"At a certain age, the benefits of using the technology far outweigh whatever these consequences that could have through the use of the technology," said Benjamin Sanchez-Terrones, University of Utah electrical and computer engineering assistant professor. "The idea is not to replace mammography but to start screening women every year."

To start that screening process earlier, Sanchez-Terrones, along with Utah-based IONIQ Sciences, has developed a diagnostic device with two electrodes that sends a low-voltage electrical current through the body to detect lymphatic changes.

The device was based on research conducted by Sanchez-Terrones based on the premise that cancer causes lymphatic changes due to an increased presence of white blood cells among other immune responses intended to fight off the tumor.

"We suspect that the immune response is triggered in a person with cancer and produces lymphatic interstitial fluid that is less electrically conductive," he said in a statement.

The patient holds one electrode while the doctor touches the other to different parts of the patient's body. Not only is the procedure safe and painless, but it is also effective. An early clinical study conducted on 48 women showed the procedure was 70% effective at predicting whether a patient has cancer and 75% effective at determining if a person did not have cancer.

The diagnostic device will allow women to start screening for breast cancer at younger ages, greatly impacting potential outcomes.

"The first line of defense to prevent fatal consequences is to act on it earlier, right before it gets to a point where the cancer may have spread to other body parts, are organized, and at that point is way harder to treat. The likelihood of survival often gets reduced drastically. Whereas if you can start to diagnose early, then you can intervene and treat the cancer earlier before it gets to a point where the therapy may become more and more invasive," Sanchez-Terrones said.

The tool also can be used to measure how effectively a therapy is working for breast cancer patients during treatment, he added. A cancer patient typically has to wait six months to a year after radiation treatment ends before getting a mammogram. The wait can affect outcomes, Sanchez-Terrones said. The tool allows patients to measure treatments without the wait or additional exposure to radiation.

Sanchez-Terrones and IONIQ Sciences received a Breakthrough Therapy Designation for the breast cancer device from the Federal Drug Administration and will apply for full FDA approval. But Sanchez-Terrones said the research behind the device can extend beyond breast cancer.

"It's not just about breast cancer. Breast cancer has a clear push or pull from clinicians and patients know they're very interested, but any advance will be substantially meaningful in any other cancer. So while now it's breast cancer, we are going to be expanding and evaluating," Sanchez-Terrones said.

The assistant professor and member of the Experimental Therapeutics program at the Huntsman Cancer Institute pointed to Utah's high skin cancer rate. Utah has the highest skin cancer rate of all U.S. states with Utahns having a higher risk for melanoma, according to Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

The diagnosis of lesions and choice to biopsy can vary on the physician's experience, Sanchez-Terrones said. A dermatologist's assessment versus a primary care physician's will likely be different. To help increase confidence in diagnosis, he has developed another device similar to the one discussed.

"The thought process is really to try to leverage what we are experts on to improve upon what's available," Sanchez-Terrones said.

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Ashley Fredde covers human services and women's issues for She also enjoys reporting on arts, culture and entertainment news. She's a graduate of the University of Arizona.


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