About half of Prof. Stacy Lindau’s patients over the last decade have had breast cancer and express new difficulties with sexual function during and after treatment. That’s now several hundreds of women.
“One of the common problems women complain of is the loss of sensation in their breast after mastectomy with reconstruction,” or even after just a lumpectomy, said Lindau, a leading University of Chicago professor of obstetrics and gynecology. “In the U.S. alone, 100,000 women a year have one or both breasts removed. That’s a lot of women losing an important body part.”
Lindau set out looking for evidenced-based solutions to these problems and came up empty-handed. So she’s now leading the Bionic Breast Project, an interdisciplinary research program at UChicago applying bionic technologies to restore post-mastectomy breast function.
“It was with these observations and substantial suffering among my patients that I went looking for a solution to the problem of lost sensation and more generally, loss of function in the female breast in the context of breast cancer,” Lindau said.
In looking for answers, she came across media stories about successes with penile transplants. What struck her about this coverage was the rarity of the conditions that would warrant this transplant, in relation to the significant investment that has been made in restoring penile function. Additionally, Lindau said she was given hope by the fact that the success of these procedures was being judged not just by the cosmetic appearance, but also by three aspects of penile function: urinary, sexual and reproductive function.
Advances in bionics emerged as a good place to look, and Lindau quickly connected with Prof. Sliman Bensmaia, a renowned neuroscientist who studies sensory information in the nervous system and the brain; he previously developed a robotic arm that allowed a paralyzed man to control the arm with his brain and feel the sensation of touch.
Bensmaia, the James and Karen Frank Family Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, said the project dovetails nicely with his previous work, but the target population is much larger.