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Nanotech, off-the-shelf camera lets doctors see cancer cells

Researchers at Rice University hope technology can be used in routine cancer screenings

June 25, 2010 01:44 PM ET

Computerworld - Researchers have added nanoechnology to an off-the-shelf digital camera to help doctors distinguish healthy cells from cancerous cells in the human body.

Rice University scientists said Thursday that doctors can use the souped-up camera to see cancerous cells on the camera's LCD monitor. Targeted nanoparticles deliver fluorescent dyes to help doctors easily and quickly distinguish healthy from dangerous cells.

Researchers hope the technology can ultimately be used in routine cancer screenings.

"Consumer-grade cameras can serve as powerful platforms for diagnostic imaging," said Rebecca Richards-Kortum, a Rice University professor and the study's lead author, in a statement. "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."

Rice University said yesterday that when the nanoparticles deliver dye to the cell, a small bundle of fiber-optic cables attached to a $400 Olympus E-330 digital camera are used to capture images. The dyes cause the cell nuclei to glow brightly when lighted with the tip of the fiber-optic bundle.

Richards-Kortum noted that because the nuclei of cancerous and pre-cancerous cells are notably distorted from those of healthy cells, abnormal cells were easily identifiable, even on the camera's small LCD screen.

Researchers tested three different types of cells: cancer cell cultures that were grown in a lab; tissue samples from newly resected tumors; and healthy tissue viewed in the mouths of patients.

"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 coauthor Mark Pierce, Rice faculty fellow in bioengineering, in a statement. "But the tip of the imaging cable is small and rested lightly against the [patient's] inside the cheek, so the procedure is considerably less painful than a biopsy and the results are available in seconds instead of days."

Scientists have been putting a lot of focus on nanotechnology in recent cancer research.

This past January, teams of researchers from three universities jointly developed a nanotechnology cocktail that should target and kill cancerous tumors. The mixture of two different-sized nanoparticles work with the body's bloodstream to seek out, stick to and kill tumors, according to MIT.

And Stanford University researchers last October announced that they had used nanotechnology and magnetics to create a biosensor designed to detect cancer in its early stages, making a cure more likely. University scientists reported that the sensor, which sits on a microchip, is 1,000 times more sensitive than cancer detectors used clinically today.

A month earlier, researchers at the University of Toronto said they had used nanomaterials to develop a microchip that is sensitive enough to detect early stage cancer. The chip is designed to detect the type of cancer and its severity.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at Twitter@sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed Gaudin RSS. Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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