As many as 100,000 breast cancer patients have one or both breasts removed in mastectomies every year in the United States. This surgery frequently leads to loss of breast sensation, which is thought to contribute to the high rates of sexual dysfunction among breast cancer survivors. But a bionic breast now under development could restore these important tactile sensations.
The project is the brainchild of Stacy Lindau, a gynecologist at the University of Chicago who specializes in the sexual function of women with cancer.
Patients often undergo breast implant surgery to restore the shape of the breasts after a mastectomy, so the team plans to simultaneously install a pressure sensor beneath the nipple that can detect when the breast is touched.
This sensor would be wired to a hermetically sealed electronic circuit lodged beneath the skin of the chest. This circuit would use sensory encoding algorithms, similar to those Bensmaia has developed for his work on hand sensation, to convert the pressure sensor’s output into electrical signals. These would then be delivered to electrodes that stimulate the residual nerves in the chest to give the patient the sensation of being touched.