New breast screening technology that uses microwaves similar to a mobile phone is being promoted as cheaper, painless and less harmful than current screening systems used to detect cancer in women.

Developers say the technology, once fully developed, could make breast screening available to women of all ages and incomes and improve access in rural areas.

However New Zealand health authorities are taking a "wait and see" stance, until the new test is shown to be at least as effective at preventing cancer as mammograms.

The non-invasive screening being developed in China and headed up by University of Waikato professor Yifan Chen from the School of Engineering, is currently in clinical trial, the first of its kind in the Asia-Pacific region.


Chen said he hoped the screening would be available to women in China by early next year and women in New Zealand and other parts of the world soon after.

Microwave imaging has been available for the past decade but only recently has the technology improved enough to detect cancer.

The screening works by using sophisticated radar sensors with frequency and power comparable to those of a mobile phone.

Unlike an X-ray mammogram, a woman's breast is submerged in a cup or tank filled with liquid or gel while she lies face down on a bed.

The scan takes four minutes and uses microwave signals to probe the breast and distinguish tissue density and abnormalities. The resulting images are immediate.

"If someone has cancer it has different bielectric properties compared to healthy tissue."

A blueprint of the microwave imaging breast screening system being developed to make breast screening more accessible. Photo / Supplied.
A blueprint of the microwave imaging breast screening system being developed to make breast screening more accessible. Photo / Supplied.

Chen, who has been assisted by a team of researchers at the School of Engineering, said there was no ionising radiation as with an X-ray. The system was therefore safer and could be performed more frequently than once a year and on younger women.

New Zealand's national breast screening programme is currently offered free to women aged between 45 and 69.

Chen said microwave screening could be applied to any age group and had the potential to be both sensitive and specific even for dense breasts, which younger women have, to detect small tumours.

"Long term we want to achieve a portable, low cost and safe screening tool which can be deployed in rural areas among low-income groups."

He said Ministry of Health reports showed Maori women were more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer, less likely to be diagnosed early, more likely to die from breast cancer than non-Maori and tended to get breast cancer at a younger age.

"Pasifika women also have higher rates of breast cancer than Pakeha/European women."

A clinical trial of the new breast screening tool is underway in several Chinese hospitals. Photo / Supplied.
A clinical trial of the new breast screening tool is underway in several Chinese hospitals. Photo / Supplied.

Microwave scanning was cheaper than standard screening - including MRI scans - because of advancements in electronic wireless communication, and was comparable in performance to other methods, including ultrasound.

And with no need for breast compression such as in a mammogram, it was more comfortable.

A clinical trial in several hospitals in China involving hundreds of patients would take most of this year, Chen said. After that his dream was to commercialise the tool and make it available to countries such as China, India and New Zealand.

Chen said initially he hoped it would complement existing screening tools in New Zealand.

Breast Cancer Foundation NZ spokeswoman Adele Gautier said mammograms were the best screening tool at present but the foundation was excited about future options.

"If there's a really cheap and easier way to check for breast cancer earlier then obviously it would make sense to do it as soon as possible."

BreastScreen Aotearoa clinical leader Dr Marli Gregory said the Ministry of Health was aware of the technology and research and was keeping watch of the findings.

However Gregory said the National Screening Unit needed a strong body of evidence to support the introduction of any new technology to the screening pathway.

"The evidence also needs to prove that any new breast screening technology reduces the rate of deaths from breast cancer when used to screen a whole population."

She said screening mammography within BreastScreen Aotearoa had been shown to reduce breast cancer mortality by a third for women screened, compared to women not screened.

Women outside of the eligible screening age range can have free mammograms through their DHB if they are displaying breast cancer symptoms or have a high risk of developing breast cancer.

The cost of mammograms outside the public system vary by private provider.

Breast cancer numbers

• 3000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in NZ each year or 8 per day
• 600-plus die each year
• 30% of eligible women aren't enrolled in free screening
• 60% of young women don't know the signs beyond a lump

Source: Breast Cancer Foundation NZ.