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Camera + Fiber Optic Cables = Cancer Scanner

June 25, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Diagnostic Imaging
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An Olympus digital camera works just fine as a cancer screening device, according to an article published this week in the open-access online journal PLoS ONE.

Rice University biomedical engineers and researchers from the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center teamed to create a low-tech imaging system that nonetheless allowed doctors to easily distinguish cancerous cells from healthy ones by viewing the LCD display on the back of the camera.

Said Rebecca Richards-Kortum, PhD, the study’s lead author:

Consumer-grade cameras can serve as powerful platforms for diagnostic imaging. Based on portability, performance, and cost, you could make a case for using them both to lower health-care costs in developed countries and to provide services that simply aren’t available in resource-poor countries.

Dr. Richards-Kortum, quoted in a Rice news release, is Rice’s Stanley C. Moore professor of bioengineering, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and founder of Rice’s global health initiative, Rice 360˚. Her Optical Spectroscopy and Imaging Laboratory specializes in tools for early detection of cancer and other diseases. Among other things, her team has developed fluorescent dyes and targeted nanoparticles that reveal molecular hallmarks of cancer.

For the new study, the researchers attached a small bundle of fiber optic cables to an Olympus E-330 camera (the body is available used for about $400). They applied a common fluorescent dye that caused cell nuclei to glow brightly when lit by the tip of the fiber optic bundle.

They tested the device (which altogether cost about $2,000) on cancer cell cultures that were grown in a lab, tissue samples from newly resected tumors, and healthy tissue in the mouths of patients. Because the nuclei of cancerous and precancerous cells are notably distorted, said Dr. Richards-Kortum, the researchers could easily detect abnormal cells in all three cases, using the camera’s small LCD screen.

“The dyes and visual techniques that we used are the same sort that pathologists have used for many years to distinguish healthy cells from cancerous cells in biopsied tissue,” said coauthor Mark Pierce, PhD, a Rice faculty fellow in bioengineering. “But the tip of the imaging cable is small and rests lightly against the inside of the cheek, so the procedure is considerably less painful than a biopsy, and the results are available in seconds instead of days.”

Richards-Kortum said the device could be used for routine cancer screening and the tracking of patient response to treatment. “A portable, battery-powered device like this could be particularly useful for global health. This could save many lives in countries where conventional diagnostic technology is simply too expensive.”

Related seminar: National Diagnostic Imaging Symposium

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