Understanding the Electricity of Breast Cancer Cells
El-Shenawee’s microwave-imaging system provides sharp, three-dimensional images of hard objects buried within soft tissue, such as cancer masses.
Credit: University of Arkansas

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When a breast cancer cell prepares to divide, it emits a unique electromagnetic signal. This finding by University of Arkansas researchers helps scientists understand the biophysics associated with rapidly dividing breast cancer cells and may contribute to the development of new detection and treatment techniques. Focusing on critical processes within cells before they start to divide, Magda El-Shenawee, professor of electrical engineering, and Ahmed Hassan, doctoral student in electrical engineering, recently found that a single cancerous cell produces electric signals proportional to the speed at which the cell divides. The researchers’ model revealed that heightened movement of ions at the boundary of the cancerous cell produces larger electrical signals. The work may help researchers and clinicians recognize abnormalities long before cell aggregates reach the tumor stage. The research builds on a previous study in which El-Shenawee created a microwave-imaging system that provides sharp, three-dimensional images of hard objects buried within soft tissue. She was able to do this by transmitting and receiving electromagnetic waves that traveled through soft tissue and bounced off a hard-object target. This project was based on years of work developing detection systems for land mines. The more recent emphasis on breast cancer detection led to El-Shenawee being awarded an NSF grant to host the 2010 Advances in Breast Cancer Research Workshop Oct. 26-29 at the University of Arkansas. The workshop will feature 70 scientists from diverse research areas in science, medicine, engineering and technology. Ten featured speakers will present cutting-edge research on breast cancer diagnosis, therapeutic techniques, treatment and screening.

Name: Magda El-Shenawee
Age: 56
Institution: University of Arkansas
Field of Study: Electrical Engineering

What inspired you to choose this field of study?
My father was a mechanical engineer and that inspired me towards engineering. However, because I was strong in mathematics and physics in high school, that inspired me towards electrical engineering.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
My Ph.D. advisor used to say “if you have worked on a problem for 2 hours and you could not solve it, then you need to put in 4 hours to be able to solve it.” Using this advice as a researcher made me more determined to get results as long as my instincts say there will be a solution.

What was your first scientific experiment as a child?
As a child, I believe the pendulum in a physics class was what I remember as a first experiment.

What is your favorite thing about being a scientist or researcher?
Publishing results when accomplished after a hard and a long journey experimenting and thinking, especially publishing with my students.

What is the most important characteristic a scientist must demonstrate in order to be an effective scientist?
Accurate, careful statements of procedures and results, and honest discussion about findings and limitations, are important. Research does not end at one scientist but is a communication between scientists through publications.

What are the societal benefits of your research?
Breast cancer is a serious disease threatening the lives of many women. Any step toward finding another approach, different from the existing ones, is a step toward defeating breast cancer. The controversy about X-ray mammography does not end; there are advantages and disadvantages of this modality. Other approaches can help complement X-ray mammography, but researchers need to spend time and effort to develop new techniques. Also, funding agencies have responsibilities to explore a diversity of methods from many disciplines to achieve this goal.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher?
Many people I have worked with have influenced my thinking; my Ph.D. advisor Ezekiel Bahar at the University of Nebraska and Michael Silevitch at the Northeastern University in Boston, whom I worked with in his center as a post-doctoral researcher some years back.

What about your field or being a scientist do you think would surprise people the most?
That I am very dedicated and persistent towards achieving my research goals.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be?
My fast computational servers, where all imaging algorithms and modeling methods are running.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car?
Classical and jazz music! Basically whatever is broadcast on NPR is great, and sometimes I buy my own CDs.

Editor's Note: This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.