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Faculty Husband and Wife Team Developing Math Model to Improve Breast Cancer Detection

June 29, 2012

Developing a mathematical model to improve breast cancer detection and save lives has become a personal crusade for Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology faculty research couple Lorraine Olson and Robert Throne.

They're both cancer survivors.

  Cancer Survivors Lend Expertise To Fight: Husband and wife researchers Lorraine Olson, professor of mechanical engineering, and Robert Throne, head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, are using their interested in inverse math problem solving to developing ways to improve early detection and diagnosis of breast cancer.  Lorraine is a breast cancer survivor, while Robert has overcome prostate cancer..

In 2005, at the age of 45, a routine mammogram revealed that Olson had breast cancer. A few months later, Throne was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After surviving the ordeal, Olson thought inverse problem solving could be used to improve early detection and diagnosis of breast cancer, without the trauma associated with a mammogram.

"We dealt with our issues and then decided to tackle this research," states Olson, a professor of mechanical engineering.

Olson's mathematical models are helping Throne, head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering who also survived his cancer diagnosis, develop a robotic device that will mimic manual breast palpations and identify the tissue stiffness associated with possible cancer tumors.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 210,203 women were diagnosed with breast cancer and 40,589 women died from breast cancer in 2008 (the most recent year numbers are available).

As cancer survivors, Olson and Throne wanted to improve the odds women face when battling breast cancer. Current manual breast exams, the normal part of women's annual healthcare, don't record findings. The project being examined by Olson and Throne features math models for early detection of breast cancer. Mammograms are normally first given around age 40.

Olson says non-cancerous tissue may be more like "Jell-O," but a cancerous tissue would be stiffer, like a "Jell-O Jiggler." The robot could measure the amount of pressure required to move that area with the stiffer tissue versus normal tissue areas. While this would not replace mammograms, the opportunity to identify a possible cancerous tissue earlier -- through a stress-free procedure -- motivates the faculty research pair. They know that early detection will increase survival rates.

"This (robot exam) could be done at a much younger age and at a cost-effective rate that could find something that needs further investigation," says Olson, the mother of a college-aged daughter. Mammograms are normally first given around age 40.

Automating and refining the breast exam process needs more than just accurately recorded results. Mathematical computation is also needed to determine the tissue stiffness inside the breast. Then, three-dimensional algorithms will help create a stiffness map of the tissue.

Olson and Throne are utilizing resources at the Texas Advanced Computer Center (TACC) at the University of Texas, part of the National Science Foundation's Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment. The couple is currently working to increase the speed of the tests to make them more efficient and more realistic.

"Research always stretches you," Olson says with a laugh. "What you think you can do can change by what you find."

Throne added that he welcomed the opportunity to use his expertise in inverse problems and control systems to help others.

Listen to an interview Olson conducted with Indianapolis radio station WIBC on this research project here (