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Handheld Microscope Identifies Cancer Cells with New Technology Developed by UW Researchers


A new handheld, pen-sized microscope could identify cancer cells in doctor’s offices and operating rooms, reports the University of Washington

UW mechanical engineers are developing a handheld microscope to help doctors and dentists distinguish between healthy and cancerous cells in an office setting or operating room.  The pen-sized microscope combines technologies to deliver high-quality images at faster speeds than existing devices. It has a high enough resolution to detect changes at a cellular level, which can improve a dentist’s assessment of an oral lesion, perhaps avoiding unnecessary biopsies.  

The miniature microscope uses an innovative approach called “dual-axis confocal microscopy” to illuminate and more clearly see through opaque tissue. It can capture details up to a half millimeter beneath the tissue surface, where some types of cancerous cells originate, UW reports.

“Trying to see beneath the surface of tissue is like trying to drive in a thick fog with your high beams on – you really can’t see much in front of you,” said senior author Jonathan Liu, UW assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “But there are tricks we can play to see more deeply into the fog, like a fog light that illuminates from a different angle and reduces the glare.”

UW engineers developed the new technology in collaboration with the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Stanford University, and the Barrow Neurological Institute. Outlined in a paper published in Biomedical Optics Express, researchers demonstrate that the miniature microscope has sufficient resolution to see subcellular details. Images taken of mouse tissues compared well with those produced from a multi-day process at a clinical pathology lab — the gold standard for identifying cancerous cells in tissues.

Researchers expect to begin testing it as a cancer-screening tool in clinical settings next year. They hope that after testing the microscope’s performance as a cancer-screening tool, it can be introduced into surgeries or other clinical procedures within the next 2 to 4 years.

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Image provided by University of Washington. 

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