Breast cancer continues to be among the most prevalent types of cancer among women in the Philippines and the rest of Asia. Treatment usually leads to mastectomy or the removal of breasts which can leave significant psychological impact on patients.
To address this problem, Emmanuelle Pangilinan and Jason Pechardo, design engineers from the University of the Philippines, invented lightweight breast forms that post-mastectomy patients can wear. But they’re no ordinary breast prosthesis—they’re made from an aquatic plant called “bakong,” which grows perennially in the northern region of the Philippines.
The bakong are actually considered pests by farmers. “Parang damo lang po na balewala sa amin,” Marnoly Samortin, treasurer of the Laguna de Cagayan handicraft Association, says about the plant. Whenever they would fish in the lake, Samortin says they would simply get rid of the fast-growing bakong because they simply have no use for it.
The fact that the aquatic plant has been an ignored resource for years served as added inspiration in the design of the “Brakong,” the humorous, easy-to-remember name the UP engineers have given their invention. The year-long availability and affordability of the raw materials also motivated the two engineers—it pleased them that their plant-based brassiere is an invention that can be recycled infinitely.
The prosthetic has a coral- or seashell-like pattern that not only makes the product aesthetically pleasing, it also needs only a small amount of materials to make.
“We can 3D-scan a patient or create a 3D model out of other imaging techniques like CT scan or MRI,” explains Emmanuelle. From this, they can create the surface of the Brakong and then 3D-print it with their PLAkong, a biocomposite of bakong pellets and polylactic acid. “With 3D printing or additive manufacturing, we can make a highly customized form. We can make each Brakong unique to its user, to their bodies.”
The other good thing about this breast prosthetic is that it’s naturally biodegradable under composting conditions. Throwing it away when you’re done with it won’t harm the environment. “Also, if you want a refitting, you can give us your old Brakong and then we'll melt that since it's made out of polylactic acid, and then we'll reprint it and adjust it to your body,” says Jason.
Emmanuelle and Jason’s invention earned them the top prize in the Philippine leg of this year’s James Dyson Award. They won a funding worth P330,000, which the team will use for further product development. Currently, the student engineers are working in coordination with the Design Centre of the Philippines, ICanServe foundation, and several medical advisers to gather user feedback and guide their approach for future product upgrades.
The Brakong project will eventually progress to the international James Dyson Awards. This global shortlist will be announced on October 12, and the winners on November 16.
The award-giving body forms part of Sir James Dyson’s commitment to demonstrate the power of engineers to change the world. The Award has supported over 300 inventions with prize money, and is run by the James Dyson Foundation, an engineering-education charity funded by Dyson profits.