Handheld microscope could identify cancer cells

A handheld, miniature microscope is being developed by a collaborative team of researchers and engineers could allow surgeons to "see" at a cellular level in the operating room or in physician’s offices.

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A handheld, miniature microscope being developed by a collaborative team of researchers and engineers could allow surgeons to “see” at a cellular level in the operating room or in physician’s offices.

The microscope is being developed, according to the paper published in the January issue of the Biomedical Optics Express journal, as a result of a need for miniature optical-sectioning microscopes to enable in vivo interrogation of tissues as a real-time and non-invasive alternative to histopathology. Developed by the University of Washington mechanical engineering department, along with with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Stanford University, and the Barrow Neurological Institute, these devices could have a transformative impact for the early detection of cancer as well as for guiding tumor-resection procedures, according to the paper.

"Surgeons don’t have a very good way of knowing when they’re done cutting out a tumor," said senior author Jonathan Liu, UW assistant professor of mechanical engineering in a university press release. "They’re using their sense of sight, their sense of touch, pre-operative images of the brain — and oftentimes it’s pretty subjective. Being able to zoom and see at the cellular level during the surgery would really help them to accurately differentiate between tumor and normal tissues and improve patient outcomes."

Co-author Milind Rajadhyaksha, associate faculty member in the dermatology service at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, also commented: "The microscope technologies that have been developed over the last couple of decades are expensive and still pretty large, about the size of a hair dryer or a small dental x-ray machine. So there’s a need for creating much more miniaturized microscopes."

Roughly the size of a pen, the handheld microscope combines several technologies in a way that delivers high-quality images at faster speeds than existing devices. The microscope is a miniature line scanned, dual-axis confocal (DAC) microscope with a 12 mm diameter distal tip. Its dual-axis architecture has demonstrated an advantage over the conventional single-axis confocal configuration for reducing background noise from out-of-focus and multiply scattered light.

Additionally, the use of line scanning enables fast frame rates—16 fps is shown in the demonstration, but faster rates are possible. The microscope uses micro-electrical mechanical (MEMS) mirrors to direct an optical beam which scans the tissue, line by line, and quickly builds an image. With the DAC approach, the device can illuminate and see more clearly through opaque tissue, with the ability to capture details up to half a millimeter beneath the tissue surface, where some types of cancerous cells originate.

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