Louisiana has only eight doctors who specialize in women's cancers, so an LSU research team wants to bring better service by turning cell phones into medical diagnostic tools for breast cancer.

Manas Gartia's invention works like a scaled-down photographic microscope. When it's finished in a few years, patients will be able to provide a small sample of spit or blood, which is dyed, then fed into an LED-lit box the size of a softball where a smart phone camera can take a picture. An app then analyzes the DNA in the sample.

It's looking for mutations on the BRCA gene. For reasons that are still being studied, changes to that gene are linked with much higher instances of breast cancer, said Gartia, a mechanical engineering assistant professor. If doctors can catch a mutation early, it would help them detect and treat breast cancer sooner, vastly improving patient outcomes.

He hopes his new technology will help women screen for the gene cheaply — a test should cost less than $50 — and from the convenience of their local primary care clinic. That will keep them from traveling to see a specialist; 29 percent of women in Louisiana live more than 50 miles from the nearest gynecological oncologist, making it hard to provide them with service, Gartia said.

Women with a family history of breast cancer as well as certain ethnic groups like Ashkenazi (eastern European) Jewish populations, are especially at risk for BRCA mutations and would be particularly encouraged to take the test.

Other labs are using cell phones to perform genetic testing, but Gartia thinks his lab is the first to turn its sight on the BRCA gene.

Throughout the month, LSU's engineering school has been highlighting the work of its faculty in understanding, diagnosing and treating breast cancer.

For example, science already knows a lot about tumors, but there's less research on the area around cancerous cells, said biological and agricultural engineering assistant professor Elizabeth Martin.

Fatty cells around a tumor can suck up medicine intended to treat disease. Tumors on stiffer surfaces like collagen proliferate faster. Factors can cause cancer cells to go into a dormant state where some medicine becomes ineffective.

The body surrounding a tumor creates conditions that mean that two people with the same kind of cancer can present very differently, Martin said. Ideally, in the future everyone would get the personalized regimen right for them, but for now "I just want to move a little bit closer," Martin said.

Personalized treatment is also an interest of chemical engineering assistant professor Adam Melvin. He studies how cancerous cells break off from a tumor and colonize other parts of the body — how breast cancer can infect the lymph nodes, for example.

It's important because when cells shed from a tumor, they often become more aggressive and drug-resistant, and LSU is trying to understand why. Researchers have found that when cancer cells enter the circulatory system, blood pushes and shears them. Changes to their shape can alter the way they behave. 

Melvin's lab also makes small equipment not much bigger than a postage stamp that simulate a cancer site in an effort to understand what chemicals induce cancer cells to move and behave certain ways.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.