Mammograms are necessary breast cancer checks for women as they reach the recommended screening age between 40 and 50 years. Yet, many find the procedure uncomfortable. “I have large breasts, and to be able to image the full breast, the radiographer had to manipulate my breast within the machine, which took time and was quite uncomfortable,” recalls Angela, who preferred not to disclose her last name.
Breast cancer is the most widespread cancer in the world, affecting 2.3 million women in 2020. Screening exams such as mammograms can help find breast cancer early, leading to timely diagnosis and treatment. If this type of cancer is detected before the disease has spread, the 5-year survival rate is 99 percent. But some women forgo mammograms due to concerns about radiation or painful compression of breasts. Other issues, such as low income and a lack of access to healthcare, can also serve as barriers, especially for underserved populations.
Researchers at the University of Canterbury and startup Tiro Medical in Christchurch, New Zealand are hoping their new device—which doesn’t involve any radiation or compression of the breasts—could increase the accuracy of breast cancer screening, broaden access and encourage more women to get checked. They’re digging into clues from the way buildings move in an earthquake to help detect more cases of this disease.
Earthquake engineering inspires new breast cancer screening tech
What’s underneath a surface affects how it vibrates. Earthquake engineers look at the vibrations of swaying buildings to identify the underlying soil and tissue properties. “As the vibration wave travels, it reflects the stiffness of the material between that wave and the surface,” says Geoff Chase, professor of engineering at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Chase is applying this same concept to breasts. Analyzing the surface motion of the breast as it vibrates could reveal the stiffness of the tissues underneath. Regions of high stiffness could point to cancer, given that cancerous breast tissue can be up to 20 times stiffer than normal tissue. “If in essence every woman’s breast is soft soil, then if you have some granite rocks in there, we’re going to see that on the surface,” explains Chase.
The earthquake-inspired device exceeds the 87 percent sensitivity of a 3D mammogram.
That notion underpins a new breast screening device, the brainchild of Chase. Women lie face down, with their breast being screened inside a circular hole and the nipple resting on a small disc called an actuator. The actuator moves up and down, between one and two millimeters, so there’s a small vibration, “almost like having your phone vibrate on your nipple,” says Jessica Fitzjohn, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Canterbury who collaborated on the device design with Chase.
Cameras surrounding the device take photos of the breast surface motion as it vibrates. The photos are fed into image processing algorithms that convert them into data points. Then, diagnostic algorithms analyze those data points to find any differences in the breast tissue. “We’re looking for that stiffness contrast which could indicate a tumor,” Fitzjohn says.
The device has been tested in a clinical trial of 14 women: one with healthy breasts and 13 with a tumor in one breast. The cohort was small but diverse, varying in age, breast volume and tumor size.
Results from the trial yielded a sensitivity rate, or the likelihood of correctly detecting breast cancer, of 85 percent. Meanwhile, the device’s specificity rate, or the probability of diagnosing healthy breasts, was 77 percent. By combining and optimizing certain diagnostic algorithms, the device reached between 92 and 100 percent sensitivity and between 80 and 86 percent specificity, which is comparable to the latest 3D mammogram technology. Called tomosynthesis, these 3D mammograms take a number of sharper, clearer and more detailed 3D images compared to the single 2D image of a conventional mammogram, and have a specificity score of 92 percent. Although the earthquake-inspired device’s specificity is lower, it exceeds the 87 percent sensitivity of a 3D mammogram.
The team hopes that cameras with better resolution can help improve the numbers. And with a limited amount of data in the first trial, the researchers are looking into funding for another clinical trial to validate their results on a larger cohort size.
Additionally, during the trial, the device correctly identified one woman’s breast as healthy, while her prior mammogram gave a false positive. The device correctly identified it as being healthy tissue. It was also able to capture the tiniest tumor at 7 millimeters—around a third of an inch or half as long as an aspirin tablet.
Diagnostic findings from the device are immediate.
When using the earthquake-inspired device, women lie face down, with their breast being screened inside circular holes.
University of Canterbury.
But more testing is needed to “prove the device’s ability to pick up small breast cancers less than 10 to 15 millimeters in size, as we know that finding cancers when they are small is the best way of improving outcomes,” says Richard Annand, a radiologist at Pacific Radiology in New Zealand. He explains that mammography already detects most precancerous lesions, so if the device will only be able to find large masses or lumps it won’t be particularly useful. While not directly involved in administering the clinical trial for the device, Annand was a director at the time for Canterbury Breastcare, where the trial occurred.
Meanwhile, Monique Gary, a breast surgical oncologist and medical director of the Grand View Health Cancer program in Pennsylvania, U.S., is excited to see new technologies advancing breast cancer screening and early detection. But she notes that the device may be challenging for “patients who are unable to lay prone, such as pregnant women as well as those who are differently abled, and this machine might exclude them.” She adds that it would also be interesting to explore how breast implants would impact the device’s vibrational frequency.
Diagnostic findings from the device are immediate, with the results available “before you put your clothes back on,” Chase says. The absence of any radiation is another benefit, though Annand considers it a minor edge “as we know the radiation dose used in mammography is minimal, and the advantages of having a mammogram far outweigh the potential risk of radiation.”
The researchers also conducted a separate ergonomic trial with 40 women to assess the device’s comfort, safety and ease of use. Angela was part of that trial and described the experience as “easy, quick, painless and required no manual intervention from an operator.” And if a person is uncomfortable being topless or having their breasts touched by someone else, “this type of device would make them more comfortable and less exposed,” she says.
While mammograms remain “the ‘gold standard’ in breast imaging, particularly screening, physicians need an option that can be used in combination with mammography.
Fitzjohn acknowledges that “at the moment, it’s quite a crude prototype—it’s just a block that you lie on.” The team prioritized function over form initially, but they’re now planning a few design improvements, including more cushioning for the breasts and the surface where the women lie on.
While mammograms remains “the ‘gold standard’ in breast imaging, particularly screening, physicians need an option that is good at excluding breast cancer when used in combination with mammography, has good availability, is easy to use and is affordable. There is the possibility that the device could fill this role,” Annand says.
Indeed, the researchers envision their new breast screening device as complementary to mammograms—a prescreening tool that could make breast cancer checks widely available. As the device is portable and doesn’t require specialized knowledge to operate, it can be used in clinics, pop-up screening facilities and rural communities. “If it was easily accessible, particularly as part of a checkup with a [general practitioner] or done in a practice the patient is familiar with, it may encourage more women to access this service,” Angela says. For those who find regular mammograms uncomfortable or can’t afford them, the earthquake-inspired device may be an option—and an even better one.
Broadening access could prompt more women to go for screenings, particularly younger women at higher risk of getting breast cancer because of a family history of the disease or specific gene mutations. “If we can provide an option for them then we can catch those cancers earlier,” Fitzjohn syas. “By taking screening to people, we’re increasing patient-centric care.”
With the team aiming to lower the device’s cost to somewhere between five and eight times less than mammography equipment, it would also be valuable for low-to-middle-income nations that are challenged to afford the infrastructure for mammograms or may not have enough skilled radiologists.
For Fitzjohn, the ultimate goal is to “increase equity in breast screening and catch cancer early so we have better outcomes for women who are diagnosed with breast cancer.”
Discarded nylon fishing nets in the oceans are among the most harmful forms of plastic pollution. Every year, about 640,000 tons of fishing gear are left in our oceans and other water bodies to turn into death traps for marine life. London-based non-profit World Animal Protection estimates that entanglement in this “ghost gear” kills at least 136,000 seals, sea lions and large whales every year. Experts are challenged to estimate how many birds, turtles, fish and other species meet the same fate because the numbers are so high.
Since 2009, Giulio Bonazzi, the son of a small textile producer in northern Italy, has been working on a solution: an efficient recycling process for nylon. As CEO and chairman of a company called Aquafil, Bonazzi is turning the fibers from fishing nets – and old carpets – into new threads for car mats, Adidas bikinis, environmentally friendly carpets and Prada bags.
For Bonazzi, shifting to recycled nylon was a question of survival for the family business. His parents founded a textile company in 1959 in a garage in Verona, Italy. Fifteen years later, they started Aquafil to produce nylon for making raincoats, an enterprise that led to factories on three continents. But before the turn of the century, cheap products from Asia flooded the market and destroyed Europe’s textile production. When Bonazzi had finished his business studies and prepared to take over the family company, he wondered how he could produce nylon, which is usually produced from petrochemicals, in a way that was both successful and ecologically sustainable.
The question led him on an intellectual journey as he read influential books by activists such as world-renowned marine biologist Sylvia Earle and got to know Michael Braungart, who helped develop the Cradle-to-Cradle ethos of a circular economy. But the challenges of applying these ideologies to his family business were steep. Although fishing nets have become a mainstay of environmental fashion ads—and giants like Dupont and BASF have made breakthroughs in recycling nylon—no one had been able to scale up these efforts.
For ten years, Bonazzi tinkered with ideas for a proprietary recycling process. “It’s incredibly difficult because these products are not made to be recycled,” Bonazzi says. One complication is the variety of materials used in older carpets. “They are made to be beautiful, to last, to be useful. We vastly underestimated the difficulty when we started.”
Soon it became clear to Bonazzi that he needed to change the entire production process. He found a way to disintegrate old fibers with heat and pull new strings from the discarded fishing nets and carpets. In 2022, his company Aquafil produced more than 45,000 tons of Econyl, which is 100% recycled nylon, from discarded waste.
More than half of Aquafil’s recyclate is from used goods. According to the company, the recycling saves 90 percent of the CO2 emissions compared to the production of conventional nylon. That amounts to saving 57,100 tons of CO2 equivalents for every 10,000 tons of Econyl produced.
Bonazzi collects fishing nets from all over the world, including Norway and Chile—which have the world’s largest salmon productions—in addition to the Mediterranean, Turkey, India, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, Pakistan, and New Zealand. He counts the government leadership of Seychelles as his most recent client; the island has prohibited ships from throwing away their fishing nets, creating the demand for a reliable recycler. With nearly 3,000 employees, Aquafil operates almost 40 collection and production sites in a dozen countries, including four collection sites for old carpets in the U.S., located in California and Arizona.
First, the dirty nets are gathered, washed and dried. Bonazzi explains that nets often have been treated with antifouling agents such as copper oxide. “We recycle the coating separately,” he says via Zoom from his home near Verona. “Copper oxide is a useful substance, why throw it away?”
Still, only a small percentage of Aquafil’s products are made from nets fished out of the ocean, so your new bikini may not have saved a strangled baby dolphin. “Generally, nylon recycling is a good idea,” says Christian Schiller, the CEO of Cirplus, the largest global marketplace for recyclates and plastic waste. “But contrary to what consumers think, people rarely go out to the ocean to collect ghost nets. Most are old, discarded nets collected on land. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I find it a tad misleading to label the final products as made from ‘ocean plastic,’ prompting consumers to think they’re helping to clean the oceans by buying these products.”
Aquafil gets most of its nets from aqua farms. Surprisingly, one of Aquafil’s biggest problems is finding enough waste. “I know, it’s hard to believe because waste is everywhere,” Bonazzi says. “But we need to find it in reliable quantity and quality.” He has invested millions in establishing reliable logistics to source the fishing nets. Then the nets get shredded into granules that can be turned into car mats for the new Hyundai Ioniq 5 or a Gucci swimsuit.
The process works similarly with carpets. In the U.S. alone, 3.5 billion pounds of carpet are discarded in landfills every year, and less than 3 percent are currently recycled. Aquafil has built a recycling plant in Phoenix to help divert 12,500 tons of carpets from the landfill every year. The carpets are shredded and deconstructed into three components: fillers such as calcium carbonate will be reused in the cement industry, synthetic fibers like polypropylene can be used for engineering plastics, and nylon. Only the pelletized nylon gets shipped back to Europe for the production of Econyl. “We ship only what’s necessary,” Bonazzi says. Nearly 50 percent of his nylon in Italy and Slovenia is produced from recyclate, and he hopes to increase the percentage to two-thirds in the next two years.
His clients include Interface, the leading world pioneer for sustainable flooring, and many other carpet producers plus more than 2500 fashion labels, including Gucci, Prada, Patagonia, Louis Vuitton, Adidas and Stella McCartney. “Stella McCartney just introduced a parka that’s made 100 percent from Econyl,” Bonazzi says. “We’re also in a lot of sportswear because Nylon is a good fabric for swimwear and for yoga clothes.” Next, he’s looking into sunglasses and chairs made with Econyl - for instance, the flexible ergonomic noho chair, designed by New Zealand company Formway.
“When I look at a landfill, I see a gold mine," Bonazzi says.
“Bonazzi decided many years ago to invest in the production of recycled nylon though industry giants halted similar plans after losing large investments,” says Anika Herrmann, vice president of the German Greentech-competitor Camm Solutions, which creates bio-based polymers from cane sugar and other ag waste. “We need role models like Bonazzi who create sustainable solutions with courage and a pioneering spirit. Like Aquafil, we count on strategic partnerships to enable fast upscaling along the entire production chain.”
Bonazzi’s recycled nylon is still five to 10 percent more expensive than conventionally produced material. However, brands are increasingly bending to the pressure of eco-conscious consumers who demand sustainable fashion. What helped Bonazzi was the recent rise of oil prices and the pressure on industries to reduce their carbon footprint. Now Bonazzi says, “When I look at a landfill, I see a gold mine.”
Ideally, the manufacturers take the products back when the client is done with it, and because the nylon can theoretically be reused nearly infinitely, the chair or bikini could be made into another chair or bikini. “But honestly,” Bonazzi half-jokes, “if someone returns a McCartney parka to me, I’ll just resell it because it’s so expensive.”
The next step: Bonazzi wants to reshape the entire nylon industry by pivoting from post-consumer nylon to plant-based nylon. In 2017, he began producing “nylon-6,” together with Genomatica in San Diego. The process uses sugar instead of petroleum. “The idea is to make the very same molecule from sugar, not from oil,” he says. The demonstration plant in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has already produced several hundred tons of nylon, and Genomatica is collaborating with Lululemon to produce plant-based yoga wear.
Bonazzi acknowledges that his company needs a few more years before the technology is ready to meet his ultimate goal, producing only recyclable products with no petrochemicals, low emissions and zero waste on an industrial scale. “Recycling is not enough,” he says. “You also need to produce the primary material in a sustainable way, with a low carbon footprint.”
The study and copying of nature’s models, systems, or elements to address complex human challenges is known as “biomimetics.” Five hundred years ago, an elderly Italian polymath spent months looking at the soaring flight of birds. The result was Leonardo da Vinci’s biomimetic Codex on the Flight of Birds, one of the foundational texts in the science of aerodynamics. It’s the science that elevated the Wright Brothers and has yet to peak.
Today, biomimetics is everywhere. Shark-inspired swimming trunks, gecko-inspired adhesives, and lotus-inspired water-repellents are all taken from observing the natural world. After millions of years of evolution, nature has quite a few tricks up its sleeve. They are tricks we can learn from. And now, thanks to some spider DNA and clever genetic engineering, we have another one to add to the list.
The elusive spider silk
We’ve known for a long time that spider silk is remarkable, in ways that synthetic fibers can’t emulate. Nylon is incredibly strong (it can support a lot of force), and Kevlar is incredibly tough (it can absorb a lot of force). But neither is both strong and tough. In all artificial polymeric fibers, strength and toughness are mutually exclusive, and so we pick the material best for the job and make do.
Spider silk, a natural polymeric fiber, breaks this rule. It is somehow both strong and tough. No surprise, then, that spider silk is a source of much study.The problem, though, is that spiders are incredibly hard to cultivate — let alone farm. If you put them together, they will attack and kill each other until only one or a few survive. If you put 100 spiders in an enclosed space, they will go about an aggressive, arachnocidal Hunger Games. You need to give each its own space and boundaries, and a spider hotel is hard and costly. Silkworms, on the other hand, are peaceful and productive. They’ll hang around all day to make the silk that has been used in textiles for centuries. But silkworm silk is fragile. It has very limited use.
The elusive – and lucrative – trick, then, would be to genetically engineer a silkworm to produce spider-quality silk. So far, efforts have been fruitless. That is, until now.
We can have silkworms creating silk six times as tough as Kevlar and ten times as strong as nylon.
Junpeng Mi and his colleagues working at Donghua University, China, used CRISPR gene-editing technology to recode the silk-creating properties of a silkworm. First, they took genes from Araneus ventricosus, an East Asian orb-weaving spider known for its strong silk. Then they placed these complex genes – genes that involve more than 100 amino acids – into silkworm egg cells. (This description fails to capture how time-consuming, technical, and laborious this was; it’s a procedure that requires hundreds of thousands of microinjections.)
This had all been done before, and this had failed before. Where Mi and his team succeeded was using a concept called “localization.” Localization involves narrowing in on a very specific location in a genome. For this experiment, the team from Donghua University developed a “minimal basic structure model” of silkworm silk, which guided the genetic modifications. They wanted to make sure they had the exactly right transgenic spider silk proteins. Mi said that combining localization with this basic structure model “represents a significant departure from previous research.” And, judging only from the results, he might be right. Their “fibers exhibited impressive tensile strength (1,299 MPa) and toughness (319 MJ/m3), surpassing Kevlar’s toughness 6-fold.”
A world of super-materials
Mi’s research represents the bursting of a barrier. It opens up hugely important avenues for future biomimetic materials. As Mi puts it, “This groundbreaking achievement effectively resolves the scientific, technical, and engineering challenges that have hindered the commercialization of spider silk, positioning it as a viable alternative to commercially synthesized fibers like nylon and contributing to the advancement of ecological civilization.”
Around 60 percent of our clothing is made from synthetic fibers like nylon, polyester, and acrylic. These plastics are useful, but often bad for the environment. They shed into our waterways and sometimes damage wildlife. The production of these fibers is a source of greenhouse gas emissions. Now, we have a “sustainable, eco-friendly high-strength and ultra-tough alternative.” We can have silkworms creating silk six times as tough as Kevlar and ten times as strong as nylon.
We shouldn’t get carried away. This isn’t going to transform the textiles industry overnight. Gene-edited silkworms are still only going to produce a comparatively small amount of silk – even if farmed in the millions. But, as Mi himself concedes, this is only the beginning. If Mi’s localization and structure-model techniques are as remarkable as they seem, then this opens up the door to a great many supermaterials.
Nature continues to inspire. We had the bird, the gecko, and the shark. Now we have the spider-silkworm. What new secrets will we unravel in the future? And in what exciting ways will it change the world?