Researchers receive $3.4 million grant from NIH to improve breast reconstruction

Freya Preimesberger

The long and complicated process of breast reconstruction for breast cancer survivors may soon be a thing of the past.

Many women undergo mastectomies and then breast reconstruction after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Reconstruction is a trial-and-error process with uncertain outcomes, said Krishnaswamy Ravi-Chandar, aerospace engineering professor and team member. The project aims to help patients and physicians better understand their options by creating biomechanical models for breast reconstruction.

National Institutes of Health has awarded a 5-year $3.4 million grant to UT biomedical engineering professor Mia Markey and an interdisciplinary team to improve breast reconstruction. Engineers, plastic surgeons, decision scientists and psychologists from UT, University of Houston and MD Anderson Cancer Center make up the research team. 

Women who undergo breast reconstruction have better body image and quality of life, especially as they become more involved in the decisions doctors make about what materials and procedures to use. Patients must choose from many types of reconstructions, which is a hard decision during an emotionally difficult time. They make choices about what implant materials to use to minimize surgery time and maximize outcomes.

“Most women have recently learned that they have breast cancer and they’re still dealing with this diagnosis, when they may be asked by the oncologist ‘Would you like to see a plastic surgeon for reconstruction?’” said Fatima Merchant, associate engineering technology professor at the University of Houston and team member. “It’s very challenging for women emotionally because they’re still in shock with the cancer diagnosis and they have to make decisions regarding reconstruction.”

The project aims to better present options to patients so that they can choose the best method of reconstruction. The team will do this by creating a surgical database of the outcomes of past patients, communication software and predictive algorithms.

The team’s first step is modeling patient volunteers by taking pre- and post-operative three-dimensional pictures. 

Creating the simulations has been challenging. Researchers intended to use ten volunteers, but it took them a year and a half to get five, according to Ravi-Chandar. 

Surgeons operate on patients who are lying down, whereas patients are concerned with how reconstructed breasts look while they’re standing. The models provide better insight into how breast tissue and implants work, which improves outcomes. 

This data could be used to create personalized simulations for each patient. In the end, patients and their physicians will use these models and survey results to tailor reconstructions to each individual. 

The scientists aim to be able to pick out images of women with a similar size, demographic and medical history as a patient and create simulated images of her after surgery.

“Our ultimate goal is to take her own data and make three-dimensional models which will then give her an idea of how she could look,” Merchant said.

Physicians can also use this technology for other parts of the body, such as in jaw cancer patient’s facial reconstruction or for surgery after burns.

“I think it’s an exciting project and we are in the beginning of the second stage, and at the end of this we hope that we will have a working model,” Ravi-Chandar said.