Promising method for breast cancer screening

breast cancer
ETH Vice President Detlef Günther (middle) with the winners of the Spark Award 2016, Orçun Göksel (left) and Sergio Sanabria (right). (Photo: ETH Zurich / Oliver Bartenschlager)

A radiation-free and painless ultrasound method instead of a mammogram is how Orçun Göksel and Sergio Sanabria would like breast cancer screens to be carried out in the future. The technology developed by the two ETH researchers, which can also detect other diseases, was yesterday awarded the Spark Award 2016.

The jury had a challenging task ahead of them: in 2015 alone, ETH Zurich researchers produced 195 inventions, 98 of which have been registered for patent approval. Out of all these innovative ideas, they had to select the most economically promising one for the Spark Award, which has been awarded at ETH for the past five years. Specialists from ETH transfer, ETH Zurich’s technology transfer unit, as well as external jurors from research and industry spent the past few weeks evaluating the originality and potential of all these inventions.

“The new ultrasound method from inventors Göksel and Sanabria emerged as the clear winner. The technology stands out thanks to its potential for quick acceptance and application in the medical market,” said Detlef Günther, ETH Vice President Research and Corporate Relations, in his speech before some 200 guests in the Audi Max. “This award is a turning point for us and a wonderful recognition of a year and a half of intensive research,” said the delighted Orçun Göksel, Professor at the Computer Vision Laboratory. “It demonstrates the applicability of our method,” added Sergio Sanabria, a scientist in Göksel’s group.

Detecting tumours with ultrasound

The novel ultrasonic measurement can be used to diagnose various tissue changes, in particular to detect tumours. Until now, many tumours could not be seen in an ultrasound. Instead of the standard practice of measuring the backscattering of sound, the new method measures the time taken by an ultrasound wave: the stiffer the tissue, which is the case with tumours, the faster the sound wave passes through the tissue. To do this, the researchers developed their own probe head together with an image processing programme. Patient trials are currently being carried out in collaboration with University Hospital Zurich. If all goes as hoped, the two researchers will either found a start-up or search for a partner to license the technology.

The way to a competitive business

breast cancer
Keynote speaker Manuel Aschwanden, CEO of Optotune, describes the ups and downs of a start-up. (Photo: ETH Zurich / Oliver Bartenschlager)
In his speech, Manuel Aschwanden prepared the two founders for the challenges facing start-up founders. The founder and CEO of ETH spin-off Optotune, which specialises in flexible optical lenses, admitted: “Developing a single copy in the laboratory is something completely different from commercial mass production.” For that it is necessary to secure financing, find employees and build up a customer base. And he warned: “Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Nevertheless, Aschwanden does not regret the step he took towards independence because, despite the setbacks, there are many moments of joy and success. In the eight years since its foundation, Optotune has developed into a competitive company with a comprehensive product range.