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Consumer-grade camera used to detect cancer cells in real-time

By Damir Beciri
6 July 2010

consumer-grade-camera-used-to-detect-cancer-1By using an off-the-shelf digital camera, Rice University biomedical engineers and researchers from the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center have created a device that is powerful enough to let doctors easily distinguish cancerous cells from healthy cells simply by viewing the LCD monitor on the back of the camera. The overall cost of the system is about $2,000 (including the $400 digital SLR camera body).

The main components of the system include an LED light source, a microscope objective lens, a fiber bundle and a digital camera. The objective and the tube lens combination form a magnified image of the bundle on the sensor of the camera, which is visualized on the LCD screen of the camera in real-time. The camera also allows connection to a laptop or other monitor screen through USB or composite video cables. The entire system weighs 1.6 kg (3.5 pounds), is powered by a rechargeable battery, and operates for about one hour on a single charge.

“Consumer-grade cameras can serve as powerful platforms for diagnostic imaging,” said Rice’s Rebecca Richards-Kortum, the lead author of the study published in open-access journal PLoS ONE. “Based on portability, performance and cost, 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.”

Richards-Kortum is Rice’s Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering, professor of electrical and computer engineering and the founder of Rice’s global health initiative, Rice 360°. Her Optical Spectroscopy and Imaging Laboratory 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 the new study, the team captured images of cells with a small bundle of fiber-optic cables attached to a consumer-grade 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,  abnormal cells are  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.”

Researchers said that software could be created to help medical professionals who are not pathologists to use the device in order 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.

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