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The Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research provided the perfect setting for Women in Media’s first event for 2017, our International Women’s Day breakfast!

Around one hundred women and a few courageous men gathered to share a delicious breakfast and to network, but primarily to hear about the Perth innovation that could enhance the outcome for women undergoing breast cancer surgery.

Leading breast cancer surgeon Professor Christobel Saunders and biomedical scientist Brendan Kennedy were WIM’s guest speakers. They described how their partnership may lead to the development of the world’s first smart surgical glove.

Professor Saunders is hopeful the emerging Harry Perkins Institute-led innovation will allow surgeons like her to detect the edges of a breast cancer tumour at a cellular scale with the touch of a finger.

In 2016 the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimated that one in eight Australian women would develop breast cancer at some stage in their lives. But Prof Saunders said between 20 and 30 percent of women who have a tumour removed are forced to undergo a second operation because not all cancer cells have been removed.

She said it was hard to detect the edges of a tumour. “My eyes and my fingers cannot see microscopic diseases. All I can see is the gross amount of the tumour, what my fingers can feel or my eyes can see.”

“That means that we have no idea if we take out a lump whether we are leaving a little bit of tumour behind… We said to the engineers ‘Right, is there anything you could do to fix that?’”

She said a surgical glove sensor “might be able to really give us as surgeons the eyes and feeling that is much better than we have already”.

“I am very proud that here in Perth, Western Australia, we have actually done a lot of research that has contributed around the world to improving the outcome for all women with breast cancer.”

Before excusing herself to perform morning surgery, Prof Saunders introduced her colleague Dr Brendan Kennedy, the glove’s developer and biomedical engineer at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research.

Dr Kennedy said his team is applying a high-resolution optical imaging scanner to help surgeons to more effectively remove tumours during surgery.

“The device works by forming an image of how tissue feels on a microscopic scale. As tumour is often stiffer, our scanner can identify tumour.”

He said the scanner was currently being used to create a bank of images of tumours removed from the breast, but the aim is to create a smart surgical glove that surgeons could use in the operating theatre to work out the edges of the tumour with much higher accuracy.

“We started our initial clinical studies around six years ago and this was really when we were taking it out the grungy engineering lab and bringing it into the medical clinic.” He said he was aiming to complement the tools already used in surgery.

“The advantage of this technology is that it is an optical fibre-based technique so it is very amenable to be made small.” He said the next stage was to “refine it into a standard surgical glove so that from the surgeon’s perspective they are doing exactly what they currently do.”

“Ideally what we want is something that the surgeon can use themselves.”

With around one third of breast cancer patients readmitted for further surgery, Dr Kennedy says he is determined to try and reduce that rate. “If we can reduce that – ideally to zero but even to five or ten per cent – it will make a significant difference to many people’s lives,” he said.

“At the moment we are looking at breast cancer but you can imagine there could be all sorts of potential uses for this in (detecting) other cancers or other diseases.”

Prof Saunders praised the efforts of Dr Kennedy and their unique collaboration between the two disciplines of biomedical engineering and medicine.

“I think this is one of the great joys of research and one of the great ways that we push things forward is that colluding of different disciplines,” she said.

“So suddenly you start to think outside of the box.”

By Nikkita Tassone: Nikkita Tassone is in her second year at the University of Notre Dame studying towards a double degree of Communications and Commerce. In addition to majoring in journalism, she hopes to complete a major in Public Relations.