Every year, around 42,000 women and 500 men in the US die of breast cancer, a disease that when caught early before it spreads to the rest of the body has a 99-percent five-year survival rate. It’s when the cancer gets detected in later stages when things become more dire, with survival rates dropping below 30 percent if the cancer spreads to lungs, liver, bones, or elsewhere in the body.

The most common way to test for potential breast cancer is through a mammogram—an X-ray image of the breast. And while mammograms can typically find lumps in breast tissue much before a doctor or individual can feel them themselves, screening mammograms miss about one in eight breast cancers, according to the American Cancer Society. 

Mammograms are recommended for women above the age of 40 about every year or so, but for high-risk patients that might not be enough. “Interval cancers,” or cancers that develop in between routine scans, make up 20 to 30 percent of all breast cancer cases and can be more aggressive. 

However, scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have come up with another possible solution—a flexible patch that can take ultrasound images comparable to those done by medical centers, but can fit into a bra. They published their recent development on July 28 in Scientific Advances. 

“We changed the form factor of the ultrasound technology so that it can be used in your home. It’s portable and easy to use, and provides real-time, user-friendly monitoring of breast tissue,” Canan Dagdeviren, an associate professor in MIT’s Media Lab and the senior author of the study, said in a release.

Inspired by her aunt who died at age 49 of breast cancer, Dagdeviren designed a tiny ultrasound scanner using piezoelectric material that could take images whenever a user wanted; the team also designed a flexible 3D-printed patch with “honeycomb-like” openings. Fitted up with a matching bra, the scanner can be moved around to six different spots to image the entire breast—no special training needed.

The researchers tested their device on a 71-year-old subject with a history of breast cysts, and were able to detect cysts as small as 0.3 centimeters in diameter up to 8 centimeters deep in the tissue, all while maintaining a resolution similar to traditional ultrasounds.

Right now, users need to plug in the device to an imaging center-style ultrasound device to see the images, but next steps for the team include building a mini, phone-sized imaging system. In the future, high-risk individuals could use the device at home over and over, and it could also come in handy for patients that don’t have access to regular screening.

“Access to quality and affordable health care is essential for early detection and diagnosis.” study author Catherine Ricciardi, nurse director at MIT’s Center for Clinical and Translational Research, said in the release. “As a nurse I have witnessed the negative outcomes of a delayed diagnosis. This technology holds the promise of breaking down the many barriers for early breast cancer detection by providing a more reliable, comfortable, and less intimidating diagnostic.”