As Breast Cancer Awareness month draws to a close, some promising news has emerged from the University of Manchester's School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering. Professor Zhipeng Wu has developed a portable breast scanner that offers concerned patients real-time video images that clearly show the presence of a tumor. The lunchbox-sized scanner uses similar radio frequency technology as mobile phones but at a fraction of the power, and lends itself to being used in doctor's surgeries for instant screening or even continued monitoring at home.

A visit to a hospital or specialist care center for breast cancer screening can be an uncomfortable and invasive process. The usual method employed is mammography, which is reported to have varying degrees of detection success – greater in women over 50 but dropping as low as 60 per cent for younger women. Instead of compressing the breast between the two plates of the x-ray mammography unit, Wu's method involves a much more comfortable cup scanner linked to a portable computer.

According to the researcher, "the main difference between the two methods is that mammography works on density, while radio frequency technique works on dielectric contrasts between normal and diseased breast tissues." The new development starts to produce an image as soon as the breast enters the cup, with any tumor or abnormality showing up in red.

Wu said: "the system we have is portable and as soon as you lie down you can get a scan – it's real-time. The real-time imaging minimizes the chance of missing a breast tumor during scanning. This will benefit millions of women in both developed and developing countries bearing in mind that one in nine women may develop breast cancer in their lifetime."

Using similar technology to that found in mobile phones, but at a tiny fraction of the power, the system is said to be "both safe and low-cost." The use of radio frequency or microwave technology for breast cancer detection has already been demonstrated by researchers in Canada, the UK and the US. Wu, however, points out that as well as being quicker than existing solutions, "other systems also need to use a liquid or gel as a matching substance, such as in an ultrasound, to work but with our system you don't need that – it can be done simply in oil, milk, water or even with a bra on."

Wu says that "although there is still research to be done, the system has great potential to bring a new way for breast cancer diagnosis." The patented innovation has been submitted to the IET Innovation Awards, the winners of which will be announced next month.