Researchers use miniature microscope to accurately differentiate healthy cells from cancer cells

27 January 2016

With the a hand-held, miniature microscope, about the size of a pen, surgeons can now  ''see'' at a cellular level in the operating room and determine exactly where to cut a tumour so as to kill only cancerous cells and leaving the healthy cells intact.

The new technology, developed at the University of Washington in collaboration with the Stanford University and the Barrow Neurological Institute, delivers high-quality images at faster than devices using current technology.

Researchers expect to start testing it as a cancer-screening tool in clinical settings next year.

''Surgeons don't have a good way of knowing when they are done cutting out a tumour,'' said senior author Jonathan Liu from the University of Washington.

''Being able to zoom and see at the cellular level during the surgery would really help them to accurately differentiate between tumour and normal tissues and improve patient outcomes,'' Liu added in a paper published in the journal Biomedical Optics Express.

A miniature microscope with high enough resolution capable of detecting changes at a cellular level could find application in dental or dermatological clinics to better assess which lesions or moles were normal and which ones needed to be biopsied.

Meanwhile, the University of Iowa studies offered key insights by recording in real time and in 3-D, the movements of cancerous human breast tissue cells. It was said to be the first instance of cancer cells' motion and accretion into tumours has been continuously tracked.

The team discovered that cancerous cells actively recruited healthy cells into tumours by extending a cable of sorts to grab their neighbours - both cancerous and healthy - and reel them in. Further, the Iowa researchers reported that as little as 5 per cent of cancerous cells were needed form the tumours, a ratio that had not been known earlier.

"It's not like things sticking to each other," said David Soll, biology professor at the UI and corresponding author on the paper, published in the American Journal of Cancer Research. "It's that these cells go out and actively recruit. It's complicated stuff, and it's not passive. No one had a clue that there were specialized cells in this process, and that it's a small number that pulls all the rest in."

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