How Xbox Kinect can transform breasts - literally

Universities are at the forefront of research into reconstructive surgery. Russ Thorne finds out more about the creative solutions in play.

In Partnership with Sheffield Hallam University

Russ Thorne
Friday 06 November 2015 18:13 GMT
(Getty Images)

There are some encouraging statistics from the frontline of the battle against breast cancer. The disease now has an 80 per cent survival rate after five years of diagnosis, up from 50 per cent in the 1970s. Following treatment, many women consider reconstructive surgery, which is not without its issues – but research at universities is helping to tackle some of the challenges it throws up.

At Sheffield Hallam university’s Centre for Sports Engineering Research, doctors Jon Wheat, Simon Choppin and consultant surgeon Amit Goyal have developed a technique for assessing which implants to use for breast reconstruction following the removal of a tumour.

Currently surgeons use their own visual judgement, which can be imprecise. However, the Sheffield Hallam team have used an unlikely source – the Xbox Kinect – to develop an alternative. The system’s depth camera allows for much more accurate 3D imaging of the breast, helping surgeons choose the right implant and potentially leading to faster, more effective treatment for patients.

It’s the kind of work that universities are uniquely placed to do, explains Wheat. “We can combine expertise in biomechanics, human body measurement, sensors, computer vision and software development to produce affordable and accessible systems like this. Our strong links with clinicians and patients allow us to develop this technology so it can easily be put into practice.”

Illustrating the depth of research in this area, a team from the University of Derby’s psychology department has explored a very different angle, focussing on younger patients (in their thirties and forties when diagnosed) who opt not to have reconstructive surgery.

Doctors Fiona Holland, Jane Montague and Stephanie Archer (now at Imperial College London) wanted to enhance our understanding of younger women’s experiences with breast cancer and decision-making post-mastectomy. “Some critical approaches have suggested that health professionals accept, somewhat unquestioningly, the psychological benefits of reconstructive surgery for women,” explains Holland. “In light of this, our research team explored the younger breast cancer patient’s perspective when reconstruction was not chosen.”

Universities are working in other areas of reconstructive surgery, too. Keele University’s research into orthopaedics may benefit patients suffering from cartilage defects in their knees, for example. Using a combination of surgery and cell therapy, patients’ own tissue is used to grow new cells in a lab, which are then used to repair the joint.

The benefits to patients of this kind of research are clear. Yet moving into the field can offer benefits to students as well, according to Jan-Herman Kuiper, lecturer in biomechanics at Keele. “They will have an interesting time and the pleasant feeling of contributing to people’s welfare,” he says. “The work is at a frontier of medical research and has much scope for personal development.”

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