One day in 2016, 16-year-old Macinley Butson was having dinner with her family in Wollongong, Australia when her father, a health professional, started discussing the side effects of using radiation therapy to treat breast cancer patients.
Just a year before, Butson had learned that a close family member — someone whom she considered a second father — had been diagnosed with cancer. Though she was unfamiliar with radiation therapy, Butson realized that night that she wanted to help.
“At that moment, I couldn’t quite understand why something hadn’t already been done,” she told In The Know. “So I kind took it as, ‘If the industry is not going to do something about it, I will.'”
Radiation therapy uses high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells. It can be delivered through external beams or in the form of capsules. While it is generally considered an effective cancer treatment following surgery, it can damage healthy cells in the targeted area, according to the National Cancer Institute. It can also lead to soreness, fatigue, nausea and loss of appetite.
Although Butson’s father worked in the field, she knew he wouldn’t have time to constantly teach her its ins and outs. She also had few opportunities outside of school to learn more about the procedure. So, instead, the teenager took it upon herself to scour YouTube for instructional videos, beginning with clips that taught her how to read scientific journals.
“I’m a very visual and auditory learner, particularly more visual,” she said. “Reading textbooks has never really worked for me.”
Upon conducting more research, Butson decided to create a malleable metallic shield — what she now calls the SMART (Scale Maille Armour for Radiation Therapy) Armour — that breast cancer patients could wear should they receive radiation therapy through external beams. Gaining entry to a hospital where she could test different metals wasn’t easy. After all, she was an inexperienced teenager attempting to transform how a particular treatment could be administered.
“The hardest component was definitely having access to the machines to do my testing,” she said. “Those opportunities aren’t particularly common or really even heard of in Australia. It was really difficult being a young person in a field where, you know, you have to have at least a master’s degree to be able to work in it.”
Fortunately, the Australian found a mentor who oversaw her research. In the process, Butson learned that copper was the most effective metal that could limit the effects of radiation on healthy cells.
“When I went into that experiment, I was expecting the results to say that lead was the most optimal shield,” she said. “Lead is globally [recognized] as the best form of radiation shielding out there. You could almost call it a well-known fact… When I got my results back and they said that copper was 20 percent more effective at the skin surface, I was incredibly surprised.”
From there, Butson worked to create a practical design. One day in history class, she was watching a documentary about ancient armies that briefly mentioned the use of chain mail — a type of armor made of interlocking metal rings.
“It sort of click in my head like, actually, that could work,” she said. “I wanted it to be movable, easy-to-use and reusable for each patient.”
Today, the SMART Armour resembles a piece of quality fabric with copper studs. It has also gained name recognition — in 2016, Butson became the first Australian to win the INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair for her invention. Last year, she was named the NSW Young Australian of the Year for the same project. Now, at just 18 years old, she hopes to have the SMART Armour in a clinical trial by the end of the year.
“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 said. “And the other thing is just helping others, especially if I can leave the world a little bit better than how I came.”
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