X-rays and MRIs can be very effective ways to detect breast cancer in its early stages, but given the commonness of the disease scientists are always looking at ways to improve diagnostic methods any way they can. Researchers in Vienna are making some promising progress in this area, developing a new method that revolves around a waistcoat packed with flexible radio frequency coils.

MRIs have advantages over X-rays as a diagnostic technique, namely because they don't involve the use of potentially harmful ionizing radiation. They also offer greater sensitivity and higher resolution imagery, though this comes with a higher cost and longer procedure times. In a bid to tackle these shortcomings and make MRIs more accessible, a new research project backed by the Austrian Science Fund and involving scientists from France is making some tweaks to the technology.

MRI produces 3D images of the human body by exposing it to a strong magnetic field along with a radio waves. The current stimulates the nuclei of hydrogen atoms within the body, a reaction which can then be picked up with a radio antenna and translated into detailed anatomical images by a computer.

When used for mammography purposes, the patient enters the MRI scanner tube facing downwards with their breasts placed in a pair of one-size-fits-all cups, which house radio frequency coils used to record the image. This current approach has its pitfalls, according to the researchers.

"This does not work equally well for all women and all breast sizes, because the coils are more efficient and give better results depending on whether they are a good fit for the respective body shape," explains Elmar Laistler from the Medical University of Vienna, member of the research team.

The scientists are developing a vest, or waistcoat of sorts, that features a set of 32 radio frequency coils sewn into the fabric. These eight-centimeter-long (3.1-in) loops hook up to a radio receiver unit by way of coaxial cables, while motion sensors are also built into the vest so the system can cancel out breathing movements in the chest that can distort the image.

"In our case, the woman lies face up and the coils should be flexible enough to be put on like a waistcoat," explains Laistler. "An essential aspect of the project is that lying on the back results in the breast being flattened, which means a much larger part of it is close to the receiver. In this way, the signal is stronger and the measuring time can be shortened."

The waistcoat remains under development for now, though the team has published a string papers in the past year laying out its progress, which can be read in Scientific Reports, the Journal of Magnetic Resonance and PLOS One.

"At the end of the project, we expect there to be a complete hard- and software package for MRI breast examinations," says Laistler.