Ordinary Digital Camera Detects Cancer Cells in Real Time

HOUSTON, Texas, June 24, 2010 (ENS) – Using a $400 store-bought digital camera, Texas scientists have created an inexpensive device that allows doctors to immediately tell whether or not a patient has cancer right at the clinic or hospital, without waiting for the results of expensive tests.

A small bundle of fiber-optic cables attached to the camera, a microscope and a common fluorescent dye allowed doctors to easily distinguish cancerous cells from healthy cells by viewing the LCD monitor on the back of the camera.

Rice University biomedical engineers and researchers from the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center published the results of the first tests of the camera online today in the open-access journal PLoS ONE.

“Consumer-grade cameras can serve as powerful platforms for diagnostic imaging,” said Rebecca Richards-Kortum of Rice University, the study’s lead author, a professor of bioengineering, electrical and computer engineering.

Rebecca Richards-Kortum (Photo courtesy Rice University)

“Based on portability, performance and cost,” she said, “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.”

“Improvements in performance and declining costs have led to the availability of optoelectronic components, which can be used to develop low-cost diagnostic imaging devices for use at the point-of-care,” the scientists wrote in their paper. “Here, we demonstrate a fiber-optic fluorescence microscope using a consumer-grade camera for in vivo cellular imaging.”

For the study, Richards-Kortum and her team of researchers captured images of cells with a small bundle of fiber-optic cables attached to an Olympus E-330 camera.

When imaging tissues, Richards-Kortum’s team applied a common fluorescent dye that caused cell nuclei in the samples to glow brightly when lighted with the tip of the fiber-optic bundle.

Three tissue types were tested: cancer cell cultures that were grown in a lab, tissue samples from newly resected tumors and healthy tissue viewed in the mouths of patients.

Because the nuclei of cancerous and precancerous cells are notably distorted from those of healthy cells, Richards-Kortum said, abnormal cells were easily identifiable, even on 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 study co-author Mark Pierce, Rice faculty fellow in bioengineering.

“But the tip of the imaging cable is small and rests lightly against the inside the cheek, so the procedure is considerably less painful than a biopsy and the results are available in seconds instead of days,” said Pierce.

Richards-Kortum said software could be written that would allow medical professionals who are not pathologists to use the device to distinguish healthy from nonhealthy cells. The device could then be used for routine cancer screening and to help oncologists track how well patients were responding to treatment.

Fitted into a specially padded briefcase, the new camera cancer testing device is portable. (Photo courtesy Rice University)

Richards-Kortum’s research group develops miniature imaging systems for better screening for oral, esophageal, and cervical cancer and their precursors at the point-of-care.

Her Optical Spectroscopy and Imaging Laboratory at Rice specializes in tools for the early detection of cancer and other diseases. Her team has developed fluorescent dyes and targeted nanoparticles that let doctors zero in on the molecular hallmarks of cancer.

In 2006, she founded the Beyond Traditional Borders initiative at Rice University to train undergraduates to design solutions to pressing global health challenges.

She is also the founding director of Rice 360°: Institute for Global Health Technologies which was announced as a $100 million commitment on behalf of Rice University at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in 2007.

Early detection is an essential component of cancer management. But visual examination can be unreliable, and many settings lack the financial capital and infrastructure to operate PET, CT, and MRI systems, the research team pointed out in their article.

Moreover, they wrote, the infrastructure and expense associated with surgical biopsy and microscopy are a challenge to establishing cancer screening and early detection programs in low-resource settings.

“A portable, battery-powered device like this could be particularly useful for global health,” said Richards-Kortum. “This could save many lives in countries where conventional diagnostic technology is simply too expensive.”

Also this week, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas granted $3.7 million to Rice University researchers to fund a separate cancer diagnostics program.

The funds will help the BioScience Research Collaborative lab overseen by Rice bioengineering and chemistry professor John McDevitt in its mission to make the Texas Medical Center the hub for diagnostics research into cancer and other diseases.

The work is made possible by McDevitt’s development of a cost-effective Bio-Nano-Chip that can provide patients with early warning of the onset of disease, cutting the time and cost of treatment.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.