New handheld, pen-sized microscope could ID cancer cells in doctor’s offices and operating rooms

Jan 26, 2016

Surgeons removing a malignant brain tumor don’t want to leave cancerous material behind. But they’re also trying to protect healthy brain matter and minimize neurological harm.

Once they open up a patient’s skull, there’s no time to send tissue samples to a pathology lab — where they are typically frozen, sliced, stained, mounted on slides and investigated under a bulky microscope — to definitively distinguish between cancerous and normal brain cells.

But a handheld, miniature microscope being developed by University of Washington mechanical engineers could allow surgeons to “see” at a cellular level in the operating room and determine where to stop cutting.

The new technology, developed in collaboration with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Stanford University and the Barrow Neurological Institute, is outlined in a paper published in January in the journal Biomedical Optics Express.

“Surgeons don’t have a very good way of knowing when they’re done cutting out a tumor,” said senior author Jonathan Liu, UW assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “They’re using their sense of sight, their sense of touch, pre-operative images of the brain — and oftentimes it’s pretty subjective.

“Being able to zoom and see at the cellular level during the surgery would really help them to accurately differentiate between tumor and normal tissues and improve patient outcomes,” said Liu.

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