UW-Madison professors create revolutionary GPS device to help surgeons find breast cancer tumors during removal

SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital was the first hospital in the world to use the technology

MADISON, Wis. – A new technology developed by University of Wisconsin – Madison professors is changing the way surgeons see breast cancer tumors, making for a more precise removal.

“When I first met this engineering team I said, ‘Google can see my driveway, why can’t I see the cancer?’ said Dr. Lee Wilke, a professor of surgery at UW-Madison and the director of UW Health’s Breast Center.

Wilke, along with Fred Lee, a professor of imaging science, and Dan Van der Weide, an engineering professor, helped come up with Elucent Medical’s SmartClip.

“It’s a GPS. But it’s a GPS that’s not turned on until you lay on the operative table,” said Wilke.

Before the SmartClip, for the last 70 years, when doctors biopsy a breast cancer tumor, they also insert a little clip at the center of the tumor. But when it comes time to remove the tumor, surgeons can’t see where that clip is.

“It’s not findable, it’s not targetable,” said Wilke.

In order for the surgeons to know where the tumor is, right before surgery a radiologist has to mark the area with a wire.

“They would place a wire, and it literally is a piece of wire, that highlights and targets the lesion and then pokes out the skin. And then the surgeon uses that wire to get to the cancer, like a lollipop on a stick,” said Wilke.

That additional procedure leaves women with wires poking out of them on an already stressful day.

“The patients on the morning of surgery haven’t eaten, they’re anxious. A lot of them faint when they go get the wires placed,” said Wilke.

Now, the SmartClip shows doctors exactly where the tumor is inside the breast tissue. As soon as the clip gets between the mattress pad and the surgical knife, it can be seen on a screen.

“I can say within a few millimeters exactly where this breast cancer is and exactly where the clip is. And that’s really important because then we’re not taking out too much tissue, but we’re taking out the right amount of tissue,” said Dr. Dana Henkel, a surgeon at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital.

Henkel, who trained under Wilke, performed the first 20 cases in the world using the SmartClip at St. Mary’s Hospital.

“On this screen it has these concentric circles that are centimeters, so I can actually plan and map out how much tissue I want to take out,” said Henkel.

The SmartClip is streamlining the breast cancer removal process. It can be placed during biopsy weeks or months before surgery, cutting out an additional procedure and possible scheduling conflicts with the radiology department.

It is giving surgeons a clear map to the tumor, giving them more confidence that they’re removing all of the cancerous tissue.

“I do a more precise, better surgery because of this. The incisions are more precise and probably hidden better because of this. The patient’s comfort is much better because of this. And our bottom line is to do a good cancer operation,” said Henkel.

Wilke hopes the innovation that allows the clip to be seen when it’s between the mattress pad and the surgical knife can eventually be applicable to other cancers too.

The SmartClip is currently being used in a handful of hospitals, but the plan is to have it in 15 hospital systems by the end of the month.