Sarah da Costa has managed to bring together two worlds that history rarely places side-by-side: medicine and lingerie. In designing the ‘Foxleaf’ prototype bra, da Costa has created a delicate undergarment that can help in the prevention and treatment of breast cancer. As she explains, “I wanted to explore on my MA how we could engineer therapeutic properties into soft surfaces for disease prevention.”
The MA in question is Central Saint Martin’s ‘Material Futures’, which is where, da Costa tells me, “for the first time we managed to process a proof of concept through microencapsulation of Tamoxifen,” the drug usually taken orally by those at risk of developing breast cancer.
She continues, “The ‘Foxleaf’ is designed to act as a site-specific polymer with the leaf shape [of the Tamoxifen drug] reflecting the foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) itself to increase surface area for potential drug absorption.” Da Costa worked on weaving the drug into her bra as “40% of women could not tolerate oral Tamoxifen, which is still the best practice drug for prevention and treatment of breast cancer,” meaning they are still at higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer.
How can a bra be a more effective means of treatment than a pill? Essentially, it fuses design, practicality and medicine all in one: “The Foxleaf [drug] is housed in a silk mesh inside the bra, allowing diffusion of nanoparticles but also allowing the bra to be washed normally.” Da Costa explains that the bra “was designed for the [target market of] 18-25 years with the BRCA gene marker (mainly daughters of women with breast cancer)” - and by making fabric, style and colour desirable, she hopes to attract more patients to her innovative method of cancer prevention.
“By developing a bio-polymer and embedding it within a bra, it is now possible to deliver the effective drug Tamoxifen through skin contact” continues da Costa, “which not only enables us to deliver the treatment at the core site, but also helps young women avoid the traumatic side effects of the drug when taken orally.”
If anyone was going to bring fashion and medicine together, no one has more qualifications than da Costa who worked in Pharmaceuticals for 15 years after her first degree in Life Science at The University of Westminster and then, “studied a conversion diploma to Fashion and Textiles at Croydon” where she “redesigned the NHS hospital gown in an anti-microbial fabric.”
‘Foxleaf’ still has a way to go before production can occur, not least funding and further clinical testing, but da Costa has no plans to slow down: “Once we have produced microspheres at the University of Westminster, I need further funding to carry out drug elution [the process of extracting a substance that has absorbed to another through washing it with a solvent], kinetics studies and in vitro skin model work.”
This work would go to help others too, as da Costa’s next goal is to “microencapsulate Galanthamine [used for the mild to moderate treatment of Alzheimer’s disease] and explore possible composites to prevent Alzheimer’s through bedding and sleepwear.” This would allow the drug to be delivered over eight hours directly to patients who “may simply forget to take a tablet.”
Backed by her course at Central Saint Martins, da Costa is forging a new path in materials and thinking outside all of the boxes to reinvent the way we take medicine. Her plans, she explains, include designing “a material archive of medical wearables and sleepwear using active drug derivatives and designing the best method of drug delivery for each.” With the necessary funding to continue her important work, there is no doubt that she will be the name that helps to change medicine, textiles and women’s lives for the better.
Words: Charlotte Sutherland-Hawes