A microscope in the palm of your hand

University of Washington mechanical engineers and collaborators have developed a handheld microscope to help doctors and dentists distinguish between healthy and cancerous cells in an office setting or operating room. Credit: Dennis Wise/University of Washington

Researchers at the University of Washington have invented a miniature microscope that can be used by brain surgeons and dentists to spot cancerous cells directly in the operating field.

Although brain surgeons and dentists might seem to be quite different breeds of doctors they share a similar problem: detecting cancerous cells are they operate on the patient. 

In case of brain surgeons, they know that the patient has a tumour and they are performing surgery to remove it. However, it is very difficult to tell a cancerous cell from a normal one just by looking at it. Hence after removing what is clearly a tumour mass they have to decide if they can remove more tissue just to be sure that no cancerous cells are left or to refrain from further surgery to avoid impairing patient functionalities. What they do today is to pick up a sample and send it over to a standing by pathologist that will stain the tissue and observe it under a microscope to detect any telltale of cancer. This requires time and is an iterative process that will anyhow result in the removal of normal cells.

In the case of dentists they often find some suspicious tissue, like a mole on a gum, that might be cancerous or not. Again, they remove part of it and ship it to a pathologist that in a few days will come back with the response.

It would be much much better if both had the tools to check on the spot if a cell is cancerous or not.

This is what the researchers at the University of Washington believe to have provided a solution.

They have created a hand held probe that with the support of software works as a microscope. They use what is called dual-axis confocal microscopy, allowing the surgeon to illuminate the tissue in such a way that the reflected light can be processed by a computer and transformed into an image that let the surgeon look at the cells on the surface of the operating area as well as those immediately below it.

This is particularly tricky, since looking at cells deeper in the tissue is like trying to look through fog: the more light you use to illuminate and the less you see because of the glare created by the reflected light.

The used of software helps in getting rid of the glare leading to sharp images that compare to the ones a pathologist obtain by staining the tissue and then looking at it under a normal microscope.

Now they are ready to start experimenting and training surgeons and dentists to understand the images created by the probe with the aim of moving into clinical use within the next 2-4 years.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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