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Faculty Researchers Striving to Improve Early Breast Cancer Detection Procedures

August 14, 2014

Tackling Key Health Issue Faculty Feature

Tackling Key Health Issue: Academic department heads (from left) Lorraine Olson (mechanical engineering), Robert Throne (electrical and computer engineering), and Adam Nolte (chemical engineering) have spent the past year working on a process to improve early breast cancer detection. (Photo by Shawn Spence)

As cancer survivors, the husband-and-wife research team of Lorraine Olson, PhD, and Robert Throne, PhD, wanted to improve the odds women face when battling breast cancer.

That’s why they have enlisted the help of faculty colleague Adam Nolte, PhD, and eight undergraduate students during the past year on a National Science Foundation-sponsored project to develop new early breast cancer detection techniques.

The project objective is to automate and refine the manual breast exam process by using robotic surface displacement measurements of breast tissue, along with computer analysis, to identify stiffer cancerous tissues inside the less-stiff normal breast tissue.

This summer, the faculty members and students have been conducting experiments on gelatin tissue phantoms to validate promising computational simulations.

While the process would not replace mammograms, the opportunity to identify a possible cancerous tissue earlier—through a stress-free procedure—motivates the research team. The members know that early detection will increase survival rates.

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 mathematical 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, head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
Olson received the Rose-Hulman Board of Trustees’ Outstanding Scholar Award in 2013, and is a strong proponent for student undergraduate research experiences. She is one of the faculty co-founders for the institute’s Independent Projects and Research Opportunities Program.

Throne is head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, while Nolte is head of the Department of Chemical Engineering.

Students involved in the project include senior mechanical engineering students Allison Crump and Gustavo Romo. Using their interests in robotics, they’ve created software that allows a robot to do the tissue indentations, along with guiding a stereo camera system that performs the surface measurements.

Meanwhile, junior chemical engineering majors Matthew Conrad and Caitlin Douglas have focused on the creation and characterization of the gelatin tissue phantoms. 

Olson and Nolte took the four students, along with senior chemical engineering student Emily Cottingham, to the University of Illinois in early July to discuss their research, visited the laboratories, and discuss tissue phantom creation techniques used at the university.

Other students working on the project since September 2013 were seniors Mathew Billingsley, Haley O’Neil, and Jim Tumavich.

Project funding will continue for another two years.