19-year-old Australian Macinley Butson’s father, a health professional, often took his work home with him. At dinner, he would often talk about the side effects of radiation therapy in breast cancer treatment. As her father’s daughter, Macinley decided she would do something to help people with this condition. But what?
When she was 15, a close family member was diagnosed with cancer. After her father’s talks, Butson started doing research on radiation therapy. She found it killed cancer cells using high doses of radiation and was delivered in the form of capsules or through external beams. While it is practically the only medically validated form of cancer treatment after surgery, it also destroys healthy cells in the area targeted. This is why patients undergoing chemotherapy can suffer from nausea, soreness, appetite loss, and fatigue.
The Long and Hard Road
Butson knew her father wouldn’t have time to enlighten her as to the details of radiation therapy. At the same time, she didn’t have many opportunities to find out more about it outside of school. She started her research on YouTube, beginning with tutorials on how to read scientific journals. They were something she needed as, in her opinion, she was not a “conventional” learner and couldn’t remember much from reading textbooks. So, she picked up most of her information using visual and auditory sources.
At one point, a possible solution dawned on her – creating a metallic shield for patients to wear while receiving radiation therapy externally This shield is called the S.M.A.R.T. armor (Scale Maille Armour for Radiation Therapy). The malleable metallic shield looks like a copper-studded piece of quality fabric.
How Did it Happen?
Ok, maybe it was easier said than done. She obviously needed to test it first, and that was no easy task as hospitals weren’t exactly in a rush to give teenagers access to their premises to test metals. According to her, getting access to equipment to do the testing was the hardest part. In Australia, you need at least a Master’s degree to work in this field.
Butson persisted and eventually met someone who agreed to oversee her research. Thereafter, she learned that not lead, but copper was most effective in limiting the effects of radiation therapy on healthy cells. This came as a surprise, because it’s been scientifically established (globally) that lead is the most effective shielding metal. Butson’s tests showed that copper was 20% better in terms of protecting the skin surface.
At this point, she began working on the practical design of the shield. Again, the secret to her success was her curiosity, creativity, and hard work. Her history class watched a documentary about armies in ancient times, which mentioned that the most effective ones used a type of armor known as chain mail that was made of interconnected metal rings. She thought that might work for her purposes. This armor was easy to use and portable and would be easy to reuse for each patient. When her armor was tested in a laboratory setting, Butson’s invention reduced surface exposure to excess radiation by a whopping 75%.
Recognition was Quick to Follow
Butson’s Smart Armor won her the biggest prize at the 2016 INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair. She also became the first Australian winner of the Fair. She also earned the recognition of Young Australian of the Year for the Shield two years later. By the end of 2019, she hopes to get clinical trials of the Smart Armor underway.
How did she do it? “On a fundamental level, one of the things that drive me the most is [my] curiosity and wanting to know if something can be done,” she shares. “And the other thing is just helping others, especially if I can leave the world a little bit better than how I came.”