Cancer-Detecting Microscope: Medicine’s Next Big Thing?


What if doctors could diagnose suspected cancer cells without having to take a biopsy from a patient?

A new project being funded by the National Institutes of Health is making that possible.

As the inventor of tumor paint, a chemical that illuminates tumors during surgery, Jim Olson, M.D., an oncologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, has been praised for his groundbreaking work. But now, he’s excited about the creation of a new invention.

Dr. Olson told Ivanhoe, “This is very personal to me.  I take care of these little kids with brain cancer and in many cases they could be entirely cured if we completely removed the tumor during surgery.”

Thanks to a new handheld microscope, doctors can zoom in on a suspicious lesion, distinguish cancerous cells from healthy tissue and know exactly where to cut.

“Anytime you’re telling the patient you could perform a diagnostic without having to remove some their tissue, I’m sure it’s a very attractive thing,” said Dr. Olson.

Project engineer at the University of Washington in Seattle, Jon Liu, said another attractive feature about this microscope is that it’s much smaller than current diagnostic devices, so doctors can use it right in their offices.

“This is already quite a small mirror, but in here, there is even a smaller mirror called a mems mirror and that’s where they are scanning the laser into the tissue so we can see beneath the surface of the tissue,” Liu told Ivanhoe.

Dr. Olson said, “It’s another tool in the toolbox that surgeons have.”

The microscope was created by engineers at the University of Washington. It will initially be used to detect things like oral cancers. Researchers anticipate it will be used on patients later this year.


TOPIC:  Cancer-Detecting Microscope: Medicine’s Next Big Thing?
REPORT: MB #4101

BACKGROUND: During surgery to remove cancerous cells, surgeons are often faced with a dilemma. They don’t want to leave cancerous material behind, but they’re also trying to protect healthy tissue and minimize harm. In surgery, there’s no time to send tissue samples to a pathology lab where they are typically frozen, sliced, mounted on slides and investigated under a bulky microscope to definitively distinguish between cancerous and normal cells. That process also subjects patients to an invasive procedure that could leave scarring and overburdens pathology labs.

NEW TECHNOLOGY: Now, a handheld, miniature microscope being developed by University of Washington mechanical engineers could allow surgeons to see in the operating room at a cellular level and determine where to stop cutting. During surgery, the microscope allows surgeons to accurately differentiate between tumor and normal tissues and improve patient outcomes. Even before surgery, this miniature microscope can be used in dental or dermatological clinics to better assess which lesions or moles are normal and which ones need to be biopsied. Thus, patients would not have to go through an unnecessary invasive procedure. The handheld microscope is roughly the size of a pen and combines technologies to deliver high-quality images at faster speeds than existing devices. Imaging speed is particularly important for a handheld device. The images can be blurry, if the imaging rate is too slow.

FUTURE LOOK: Testing the handheld microscope as a cancer-screening tool in clinical settings, can happen as early as 2017. Researchers hope that after testing the microscope’s performance, it can be introduced into surgeries or other clinical procedures within the next two to four years.


Kristen Lidke Woodward

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