High School Student Advances Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Monday, August 06, 2012

For the second year, the Google Science Fair has brought together some of the smartest teenagers in the world. This year's winner is Brittany Wenger. She's a 17-year-old high school student from Florida. For her award-winning scientific project, Brittany used her knowledge of computer programming in order to help doctors diagnose breast cancer.

Previously, non-invasive breast cancer diagnosis had not been nearly as successful as invasive procedures. However, Brittany's idea could help move the field forward. Her computer program, called a "neural network," mimics the human brain in that it reads massive amounts of information and detects complex patterns, and then can "learn" to make diagnostic calls on breast cancer.

What first inspired her to look into neural networks was one of her courses, an elective centered on futuristic thinking. "It was really by accident that I discovered this amazing technology and became so enthralled," Wenger says. "When I came across it, I went out and bought a programming book, and with no experience decided that that was what I was going to do." 

Wenger noticed that the results from one of the least invasive biopsies, the fine-needle aspiration, were the most inconclusive. She worked to design a system that would analyze the samples more intelligently. "I created a tool for doctors to use that could detect patterns in these fine-needle aspirates that are too complex for humans to detect so that it could provide doctors with this way to determine whether masses are malignant or benign without all the invasion," Wenger says. 

The network takes into account qualitative data that help identify whether or not the masses are malignant or benign, then makes connections between the different inputs to produce an output. "In training mode, [the program] is going to know the answer it should have gotten, and it's going to try to adjust itself so that it can get that answer next time," Wenger says. "In testing mode, it applies what it's learned." 

The program has a success rate of 99.11 percent of correctly identifying malignant and benign tumors, and the high school senior points out that that figure will only improve. The program will increase the effectiveness of the fine-needle aspiration test, which is good news for people being diagnosed. 

"A lot of biopsies are a lot more invasive than the fine-needle aspirate," Wenger says. "So what it would mean if you were a woman who was having one of these biopsies, instead of going through more painful, more invasive procedures, it would just be like getting a blood test — a little needle [would be] stuck into the mass. It wouldn't be as uncomfortable, or as costly." 

Wenger, who wants to become a pediatric oncologist, says that she combined her passions for computer science and biology after finding some data that sparked her interest in the project. Her cousin was going through painful biopsies at the time, and that motivated her to continue. 

The 17-year-old has been invited by breastcancer.org to speak at the organization's next convention, and a hospital has volunteered to provide her more data for further research. She plans to continue studying computer science and biology, and is currently applying to universities. Harvard, Duke, Dartmouth, and Stanford are just a few names on her list. 

Guests:

Brittany Wenger

Produced by:

Robert Balint

Comments [3]

Cat from Brooklyn, NY

I was moved to tears hearing your guest talk about her absolutely incredible scientific project and the potential how this can change many women's lives. Thank you for having her on the show. I am thankful that attention is being drawn to this topic. It is crucial and critical that the public is educated on breast cancer screening. This technological medical advancement would change my life. I am someone who has had 6 stereotactic breast biopsies (these are painful and extremely uncomfortable biopsy procedures) and several needle core breast biopsies and two surgeries to remove masses in my breasts. I've been screened from the time I was 35 and have gone through this succession of biopsies and surgeries. I have to have mammograms and sonograms every 6 months to monitor the multiple lumps in my breasts. If this technology were in place it would save me so much time, physical pain, mental anguish and overall well being. Breast cancer runs in my family and some of my biopsies have come back with "abnormal cells" causing me to be at high risk for beast cancer. Hence the doctors and radiologists watch me like a hawk. The young woman who created this project is an absolute genius, in my opinion. This would have a HUGE impact in my life. Bravo and let's get this in place ASAP! Congratulations to this young innovator!

Aug. 06 2012 02:14 PM

Maybe I missed it--but I was so disappointed the host never asked Brittany Wenger where she went to school. Was she a product of private schools? public schools? city or urban? what math and sciences courses did her schools offer? what school, for instance, offers AP computer science to sophomores? Learning about Ms. Wenger's schooling would have added greatly to the value of this story.

Aug. 06 2012 10:00 AM
Naomi nIssen from Brooklyn

So here's a very young woman who has made an incredible discovery to help relieve women additional suffering while they are already saddled with breast cancer, and speaking facily in opaque scientific terms in the most modest fashion and I began to wonder how the male on air host would respond to her, and indeed, he asked if her parents were proud or wished she would "focus on something more whimsical." I was astonished.

Aug. 06 2012 07:44 AM

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