A device that could save lives by improving breast cancer testing owes part of its success to the humble pooch
Man’s best friend has proven a loyal ally once again – this time in the fight against breast cancer. The humble pooch is the inspiration behind a new device that provides affordable, pain-free and non-invasive testing for breast cancer.
Most of the credit for the home testing kit, however, must go to Spanish engineer Judit Giró Benet (pictured above), who invented it. The Blue Box uses artificial intelligence that mimics a dog’s nose to analyse urine samples and identify breast cancer biomarkers.
Hounds were first accredited with sniffing out cancer in 1989, when a canine was observed showing unusual interest in a mole that was growing on its owner’s leg. The mole turned out to be cancerous.
“This event proved that cancer causes metabolic changes, altering the body’s taste,” said Benet. “And so we mimicked the dog’s sensory system into an AI based software.”
Benet decided to focus on breast cancer testing after coming across a study by the Catalan Department of Health, which found that 41 per cent of women skipped mammogram screenings because they found them too painful. Benet’s mission subsequently took on added poignancy when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“That just continued to make it even more meaningful to pursue this project,” said Benet.
The Blue Box is easy to use; all women have to do is put a urine sample inside the device and wait for the result to be sent to them via their smartphone.
“Every second that the urine is inside the Blue Box it is sending a signal to the cloud, where our artificial intelligence algorithm is hosted,” explained Benet. “Then the signal will go back to the phone so the user gets a result.”
In early trials, the Blue Box gave an accurate reading more than 95 per cent of the time, offering the potential for early diagnoses and better patient outcomes. Larger trials are now needed.
Benet says that the more people use Blue Boxes, the more intelligent the software becomes.
“Every time that someone gets screened, [they] would be feeding this artificial intelligence algorithm with new data,” she said. “So, you are helping the next women who will come after you have a better diagnosis.”
We mimicked the dog’s sensory system into an AI based software
Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among women and despite advances in medicine the number of people dying from it is rising. However, Benet’s device could lead to earlier diagnoses and therefore better patient outcomes.
The Blue Box’s potential to boost cancer survival rates was acknowledged at the 2020 James Dyson Award, which awarded Benet first prize and £30,000 to develop her invention.
“What we dream is a world in which every household has one of these Blue Boxes giving every woman the possibility to get screened at home, giving them the power to own their own health,” said Benet. “If the Blue Box can reach the market it can be empowering for every woman in the world.”
Rewarding ingenuity: the James Dyson Award
The annual James Dyson Award is an international competition that celebrates and rewards designers of problem-solving ideas. For the first time last year, the award had a separate category for sustainably inventions – a welcome albeit overdue acknowledgment of the climate emergency.
The sustainability category was won by Carvey Ehren Maigue (pictured below), an engineering student at Mapúa University in the Philippines. Maigue developed a technique to turn rotten vegetables into a plastic-like material that converts UV light into electricity. His innovation can be attached to buildings and is effective even in shady areas, because it can pick up UV rays that bounce off other structures.
Among the sustainability runners-up was a device that captures tyre pollution at source. Created by London’s Royal College of Arts, the car-mounted contraption reportedly captures 60 per cent of harmful airborne tyre particulates.
The particles it fails to catch could potentially be captured by another award-winning device – developed by inventors at the University of Southampton – which captures microplastics out of water.
Main image: Judit Giró Benet with her prototype Blue Box. James Dyson Award