Innovation design engineering graduates from Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art have won this year’s UK James Dyson Award for the design of an at-home breast health monitoring tool.
Debra Babalola and Shefali Bohra graduated from their master’s degree this year. The idea came during a group project on the course. Dotplot is designed to help women stick to a regular breast self-check routine so that signs of breast cancer can be detected earlier.
Cutting through the noise
Early research carried out by the team revealed that “guidance is very varied and limited,” according to Babalola. She explains that Dotplot seeks to “address the confusion and misconception around breast self-checks” and provide women with “guidance and clarity”.
As well as this, they found that there are no at-home devices that can currently be used to perform the checks, which is another gap they wanted to fill. “Conversations that we had with women suggested that they only felt confident when checked by a GP,” says Babalola. Another aim for the tool is that it will reduce the number of GP visits and give women “more control over their breast health”, she adds.
Doing the groundwork
Starting with interviewing women on and off campus, the team’s initial agenda was to “understand how, when, and how frequently they do breast self-checks”, as well as understanding which regions they were checking, says Bohra. Their research uncovered the fact that most women did not really understand which regions they should be checking and were not checking themselves regularly enough.
Next steps included working out “how women want to engage with their self-checks” and sourcing “available technologies that [they] could use and optimise”, Bohra explains. She adds that some of the most vital information came from “conversations with healthcare professionals” from across the globe.
“Breasts are so complex and change every single day of your period cycle so we had to pin down what would be the optimal time period to perform breast checks based on the menstrual cycle,” says Bohra.
How it works
Dotplot is combination of a handheld device and an interactive app. The device connects to the app, which then guides the user through an “onboarding process”, according to Babalola. This includes inputting health information, details of your period cycle – if applicable – and taking information on bra size and breast shape. The latter two are taken to rescale the image on screen, providing users with “a personalised map of their torso”, says Babalola.
The app then uses this map to guide the user through the checking process, “flashing on certain points until they have been scanned, moving across the collarbone, breast and rib cage area until all regions have been covered”, Babalola explains. She adds that it works “similarly to an ultrasound” by using sound waves to take readings and can detect lumps up to 15mm deep in the tissue and as small as 6mm in diameter.
Once data is collected, it compares readings over a period of a few months, highlighting any changes to the user. Bohra says that Dotplot is purely a “flagging device” and won’t do any diagnosis. It tells the user when they should visit the GP.
Babalola adds, “We don’t want it to be an app that you just come to once a month. We want people to engage with it more frequently.” To encourage this, the app will also act as an “educational platform” and inform users of other symptoms linked to breast cancer, she says.
Babalola and Bohra estimate that the device itself will cost around £100-£140 per device, “depending how sensors are precured and how it is assembled”. They also confirmed plans to have a working prototype of the app by next year.
Dotplot’s next steps
In addition to the £5000 prize money, the team will also be “raising more funds to cover the cost of product development and recruiting new team members who specialise in electrical engineering, app development and data science is what’s next,” says Babalola. This is all part of the journey towards clinical trials next year.
Bohra adds that “engaging with more customer segments” to make Dotplot accessible to as wide an audience as possible is also part of plans. The team have now categorised their research groups into women who are maybe in their early 20s and are less concerned, and people who are more susceptible to breast cancer perhaps due to their medical history. “We want to ask them what they want Dotplot to be and then work out how we can tailor it to different people,” says Bohra.
The team will also work towards “eliminating false negatives” and solidifying the comparison period. It is possible that, much further into the future, the technology could also be applied to monitoring other tissues, like testicular cancer and soft tissue sarcoma.